- 07 Aug 23
Lucinda Williams - one of the greatest rock n’ roll song writers and record makers there is - has just released the appropriately titled Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart. It’s a strong recovery from a run of luck that would have knocked anyone down. “You write down some lines and that turns into a song,” she tells Pat Carty.
There are bad years and then there are bad years. Lucinda Williams has described 2020, with considerable understatement, as “apocalyptic”.
“Yeah, the sea turned red. We had locusts… We had a tornado blow through Nashville which took part of the roof off, then the pandemic, and then I had a stroke.”
Williams, looking remarkably fit and well down the Zoom line, explains what happened when the stroke hit.
“It was caused by a blood clot in the brain,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Basically, a lot of the wiring was short circuited. It was the left side of my body that was affected. I jumped right into the physical therapy because I had to learn to walk again. Unfortunately, it affected my hands so I haven’t been able to play guitar which has been a real drag. I learned to walk again so I’m hoping the guitar playing is going to come back.”
If it set her back, you can’t tell from her recent workload. She’s toured, there’s a new record and, in April of this year, she published Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You: A Memoir
“The memoir was done after the stroke. I was apprehensive because I’d never done anything like that before. I wanted to be honest and open about things but not hurt people’s feelings.”
When recounting a life as full as hers, it must have been difficult to know what to leave out.
“I tried to think about unique and different stories,” she explains. “Like when my father met Hank Williams, a story he used to tell all the time. I wanted it to be like how people used to sit the front porch and talk about things, before we had cell phones and computers.”
There’s some harrowing passages like the assault in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis by the same individual she sings about in ‘Wakin’ Up’ – “he’s a bad man, he has to face it” - on her last album, 2020’s Good Souls Better Angels.
“That is the same story, that’s the same guy. I didn’t worry about hurting his feelings.”
It’s a tough song to listen to but then how could it not be?
“I just had to lay it out and make a statement about it.”
Another notable cut on that record, about a different fellow altogether who used to live in the White House, is ‘Man Without A Soul’. “It’s just a matter of when, it’s coming down” is repeated a few times. Does Williams think that gentleman is ever going to get his comeuppance?
“I think it’s kind of a law of nature, there’s a certain balance in the universe, so I like to think people get their comeuppance. I like the way you put that. ‘Man Without A Soul’ is written about politicians who make our lives a living hell. It could be about a bad boyfriend but I was thinking more of someone like Trump, or Putin.”
Has America recovered at all or did he open a Pandora’s box that’s impossible to close?
“Kind of, but his presence is still there,” Williams reckons. “The only option we have is vote for the right people. Get better people in , like on the Supreme court, so they make the right decisions.”
Back in January, when Williams played Vicar St, she covered Memphis Minnie’s ‘You Can’t Rule Me’, a direct riposte to the shock overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“I said that before I did the song. I thought it was very relevant. It was such a backwards thing, it made us all feel that we’d come so far and now we have to start all over again. Shock would be an apt word.”
Williams and her family moved around a lot when she was a child. Lucinda says now that she didn’t mind but it found its way into her work. Her father, the poet Stanley Miller Williams who read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, didn’t realise the effect such nomadism had on his daughter until he heard her sing the title track from her breakthrough album, 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. While previous records Lucinda Williams and Sweet Old World have much to recommend them, it was on this album that it all came together. It combines the best American music – blues, soul, country, rock n’ roll – with a voice fashioned from a pleasing blend of barbed wire and honey.
“We were talking a little bit backstage and he said he was sorry,” Williams remembers. “I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, ‘That new song you sang tonight, the child in the backseat, little bit of dirt mixed with tears, that was you.’ I honestly hadn’t realised I was writing about myself, I thought I’d created this little person for the song. He recognised me. It was a bittersweet moment.”
Williams Senior also taught English literature so he knew when the pupil was ready.
“I admired him, not just as my father but as a writer, and always sought out his approval. When I had new songs I would show him my lyrics to see what he thought. I sent him what I’d written for Essence [2001, another essential purchase, for ‘Lonely Girls’ on its own] and he said something like, ‘Honey, I think this is the closest to poetry you’ve ever come.’ That was huge. ‘Does that mean I’ve graduated?’ I asked and he said yes. It was almost like an apprenticeship with the two of us.”
When Williams got married to Tom Overby – on stage because she’s a total rock n’ roller – her father wrote the wedding vows.
“First Avenue in Minneapolis is one of my favourite venues. I wanted to be able to get married somewhere where I could invite a lot of people! Tom and I said to each other that we could just make it part of the encore.”
I mention Sly Stone or even Tiny Tim but Lucinda says she was thinking of Hank Williams because she’s far cooler than you or I could ever dream of being.
2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten
On the road to critical and commercial success, Williams was plagued by executives who thought she was ‘Too rock for country and too country for rock’.
“The funny thing is that literally happened,” she can laugh about it now. “I was given what they used to call a development deal, where they give you money to live on for six months where you write songs and make a demo. They said it was too country for rock so they sent it to Sony Records in Nashville who said it was too rock for country. I mean, so what? Why is that a negative thing?”
Maybe it would be different now. Maybe.
“Probably, yeah, and the reason for that is the creation of ‘Americana’”
This term, often used to describe anything with a twang, is one that Williams has expressed dissatisfaction with in the past.
“It’s the idea of labels,” is how she sees it. “It all comes down to marketing. I have to remind myself it’s the music ‘business’ and they need to market the ‘product’. If they don’t know what it is, it makes them nervous.”
What was it Duke Ellington said? There’s only two types of music, good music and the other kind.
“That’s right! Thank you. That’s perfect.”
If Williams doesn’t like ‘Americana’ then what about ‘Alt-Country’? The week we spoke Paste Magazine picked Car Wheels On A Gravel Road as the best Alt-Country album of all time.
“I don’t know,” she says, more than slightly exasperated. “One of my favourite quotes is from Charlie Sexton, who said, ‘Alternative to what?’ The problem is that as soon as you label something, it leaves people out.”
How would she describe her work then? For me it’s southern soul music.
“I think southern music is a good term. It’s a blend. It’s got country in it. I love country but I don’t like contemporary country. You have to clarify the term ‘country’. Do you mean Faith Hill or do you mean Loretta Lynn? I love George Jones and Buck Owen and Tammy Wynette and all that. The songs were better back then. A lot of what I don’t like about country today is the production, the way the records sound.”
The curious are directed to Funny How Time Slips Away, a collection of country classics that Williams recorded during lockdown. It’ll break your heart, in a good way. Gram Parsons used to call this amalgam of country, blues, soul, and rock n’ roll ‘Cosmic American Music’. Is that where she’s at?
“Pretty much although I don’t know if I’d call it that. When I lived in Austin in the seventies, they used to call people who sang country and smoked pot Cosmic Cowboys.”
Willie Nelson, in other words?
‘Well, Willie is in his own niche!”
Can’t Let Go
As we were discussing Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, one of the greatest records there is no matter what the marketing lads might call it, I asked about its protracted – six-odd years - birth.
“I was trying to do the vocals for ‘Jackson’ and it just wasn't feeling right, we just needed to record it again. Steve Earle was working on his album El Corazón and he asked me to come in and sing. He gave me a copy of his rough mixes and I loved the way his record sounded. We were just going to recut that one song that I was frustrated with but it sounded so good we just kept going until eventually we recut every song on the album.”
It gave her a reputation as a ‘perfectionist’. Was this just sexism, plain and simple?
“Basically it’s sexism, yeah, because John Fogarty had his new album come out and I think there was eleven years between his last two and nobody said anything negative about it.”
The reason we’re talking is Lucinda’s new record Stories From A Rock N’ Roll Heart. Her hopefully temporary inability to play guitar has resulted in more collaborative writing.
“I can still write songs, it just a different method now,” she says. “I can create melodies in my head and then sing them for someone to play the parts. Tom and I started collaborating spontaneously for the songs on Good Souls, Better Angels. I didn't know he was so good. I’d be working on something and Tom would have these lines that he’d come up with. He was kind of shy about it at first, you know?”
That’s hardly surprising. He probably had one eye on the Grammys in the house with the words ‘Lucinda Williams’ on them.
“At first I thought, ‘What if I don't like them, what am I gonna say?’” she continues “But they were actually good. I’d use them in a song I was already working on or I'd start a new one. A couple of other people jumped into the mix and got involved. Our friend and tour manager, Travis Stevens filled in on guitar. It was very organic. Jesse Malin brought a rock and roll element into the mix.”
Malin, a New Yorker with whom Hot Press has enjoyed a drink, has released several fine solo records including Sunset Kids, produced by Williams and Overby. He recently suffered a rare spinal stroke which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Williams tells me how he’s coping.
“I heard from him yesterday. He’s in the hospital, but he's hanging in there. He's doing okay. We work really well together.”
It was Malin who helped get the big guest name on to the record.
“We had met Bruce Springsteen before. He’s a fan of my music and he’s a really good guy besides being a great artist. We were working on ‘New York Comeback’ and it was Tom who said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Bruce on this?’
As one does…
“Jesse popped up and said, ‘I think I can get a hold of Bruce…’ He knows everybody. People call him the unofficial mayor of the lower east side. Bruce and Patti weren’t able to come to Nashville but they did it on the east coast. We didn’t tell them what to sing, we just let them do whatever they wanted.”
Other guests include Angel Olsen and Margo Price. Surely Williams can see her influence in their work?
“I guess a little, musically. I feel very flattered when because people ask me that. I forget sometimes that I'm that much older than they are [she turned seventy in January] so maybe they look up to me a little bit. It’s humbling, to say the least. Margo reminds me of me when I started out. I’ve come to just love her. It’s interesting because I look up to Chrissie Hynde in that same way.”
‘Stolen Moments’ is about Tom Petty.
“It's kind of a tribute to him. It’s about anyone you're thinking of after they've passed on, and those fleeting moments where you feel their presence. We were just starting to be good friends when he died. He invited me to open up his very last shows at the Hollywood Bowl which was a big deal for me. We hung out after and somebody took a picture of us which I still have, a wonderful photograph where he's got his arm around me and we're both smiling.”
Petty covered Williams’ ‘Change The Locks’ on the She’s The One soundtrack.
“That was huge for me,” she gushes. “It’s a big deal when somebody else records one of my songs and does it well, like Mary Chapin Carpenter and ‘Passionate Kisses’.
I throw in Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ ‘Can’t Let Go’ or, even better, Emmylou Harris’ incredible version of ‘Sweet Old World’.
“Oh God, yeah,” Williams agrees. “I love that album [Wrecking Ball, another one of those classics that you should own]. Her voice was always beautiful but very pure sounding and then on that album she had this raspiness that I thought was really great.”
The new album is a mission-statement of sorts, from rockin’ opener, ‘Let’s Get The Band Back Together” to a pair of songs to soothe the souls of believers everywhere. Sung in a voice that sounds more affecting than ever, ‘Jukebox’ has the Wurlitzer easing the pain with Muddy Waters and Patsy Cline records, and ‘Last Call For The Truth’ has Lucinda requesting one more song to sing along to.
“You write down some lines and that turns into a song. It’s not until you sit down and look at them that you might recognise a conscious thread.”
“I was talking to a journalist from Germany and he asked me, ‘Do you really believe that music can make a difference and change the world?’”
“I said, ‘Yes.’”
Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart is out now on Thirty Tigers records. Lucinda Williams plays Dublin’s 3Olympia on February 27, 2024.