Nine Songs: Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams is an album person. No surprises there.
Her latest record, Good Souls, Better Angels, is an album in the classic sense, with a true sense of lyrical purpose. Recorded in 15 days, the instruments, words and Williams' peerless singing growl their intentions throughout its taut 59-minute running time.
It’s a blues-rock firebrand, focused on melting down the restrictive structures of a gaslit society. On “Man Without a Soul,” it’s pretty clear which public figure Williams is raging against when she sings, “You bring nothing good to this world / Beyond a web of cheating and stealing.” The songwriter stands firm against the unidentified threat and informs him that his “wall of lies” is about to crumble at his feet.
Good Souls, Better Angels has deep ties to the Biblical themes heard in the traditional blues songs of Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan's modern contortions of folklore, where Williams pays careful attention to the lineage of music and her place within it. Although albums and lyrics are her keystones, the creation of her Nine Songs picks slowly trickled out for Williams. The songwriter explains she scribbled down some notes and tried to select tracks that epitomised each album or musician associated with it.
Williams has crafed some of the greatest roots rock records of the last 40 years, from 1988’s Lucinda Williams to 2016’s The Ghosts of Highway 20. Naturally, the songs she's chosen move from album cornerstones, caked in the mud of bluesy rock, memories of her late poet father Miller Williams, to vignettes about touring and meeting other like-minded musicians.
If you get Williams talking about one album, her distinct voice immediately jumps up a couple octaves like a sprinkler head popping out of the sod. She mentions loving Waxahatchee‘s Saint Cloud and enjoying a pleasant chat with its creator Katie Crutchfield, before their respective self-quarantines side-lined plans after both of their excellent new albums arrived this spring.
Williams tells me she also wants to check out Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “You know what? I haven’t listened to the new Fiona Apple album and it's been brought up to me a few times. I've been reading about it and hearing really good things about it,” she says. “I need to do that. That's on my list.”
Williams wants it to be clear, though; she’s definitely an album person. “I picked these nine songs, but it’s easier for me to just pick an album, because that's how I think of things - more in the sense of the whole album, as opposed to songs by themselves.” Or, as she sings on her new album, “you can’t rule me.”
“Well, I'm a Southerner of course, so this appeals to me from that perspective right off the bat. I love the sentiment of the song and what it conveys, the melody of it and everything. It's so unique. I don't know any other song that talks about Southern accents and I just love what it says about “Everything is done / with a southern accent where I come from.” I love that line.
“It's real emotional to me and it's hard not to get choked up every time I'd hear it, because I think about Tom Petty and now he's not here. I feel a real connection with it. The last time we played with Tom [September 25, 2017] was the last show he ever did, when we opened up for him at the Hollywood Bowl, and then he was gone a few days later. The whole experience was pretty heavy and it will never leave me.
“I actually learned about that song from his other song “Rebels,” which is another song about Southern roots and where you're from. Tom was really tied to that, and I am too. That's part of what I loved about him.”
“That one's just real special for me, because when that came out I'd just been playing guitar for a few years and I was being influenced by so much great music at the time. I heard that song because it was on the radio and then I got the album Ode to Billie Joe and I just fell in love with her, the sound of her voice, and her songs. She writes about where she's from in Mississippi and writes about her childhood.
“The other thing was that she had this low, smokey voice and I was really impressed by that. Mainly because all the other women singers I'd been influenced by, or who I was listening to at the time, all had these high, pretty voices, like Judy Collins and Joan Baez, and then later, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt, of course.
“They all had these amazing voices with these great ranges, and I didn't. I always struggled with that and I always felt insecure that I couldn't sing like that. And so here comes Bobbie Gentry and she's got this lower range and everything, and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I can really identify with her voice, and it's okay, I don't have to sing real high or pretty.’
"It really made an impression on me, because she was just so different in that regard, the way she sang and just even how she looked and everything. The whole package really appealed to me.”
“My husband Tom turned me on to Atmosphere, he knows him from Minneapolis because he’s from there. I mean, I've always listened to concert music and everything, but this was the first album I'd heard of his, and I listened to the lyrics and I read the lyrics. Lyrics are important to me.
“I loved what Slug was doing musically, because it was kind of a... I don't know what you want to call it. I hate labels, because as soon as you say it's a particular thing people think “Oh, his stuff is really different.’ I mean, I guess you'd call it hip-hop or whatever, but it's got that element to it. His writing is so poetic. It's really, really good. He's a great writer and that's the thing that really struck me.
“That whole album Southsiders is just great from start to finish. This song really struck me and Tom explained the song was written about Slug’s friend [Micheal “Eyedea” Larsenhe] that he worked with, who died unexpectedly. The hook is “One little flicker of light / can erase the dark.” I just thought, ‘Wow, what a great concept.’
“The thing I liked about his writing is that he writes really sensitive songs like that. I remember one time I was on the tour bus and I was in the back, listening to this album. My guitar tech came back there and he goes, ‘Oh, what are you listening to?’ I said, ‘It's Atmosphere.’ He goes, "Well, I don't really like hip-hop and rap and that stuff. It's all so angry.’ I said, ‘Well, that's not what this is like.’ He goes, ‘Oh, well I'll have to listen to it then.’
“I think it's kind of the blues of today to me. I love the music part of it too. I think it's really tied in with James Brown. It's all connected.”
“Oh my God, I can't remember how I found this one… Oh, I know what it was! I got introduced to Kurt Vile, the guy who used to play in The War on Drugs.
“He was recording an album in Nashville and he asked me to come sing on something. I wasn't familiar with him or his music or anything, and then Tom explained that he had been in this band, The War on Drugs. So I kind of started doing some research and checking out The War on Drugs, and that album A Deeper Understanding had just come out.
“I started listening to it and it wasn't an immediate thing, but then it started growing on me and I just fell madly in love with it. The more I listened, the more I liked it. The lyrics really drew me in and of course, the melodies, his voice, the whole thing was good. It's one of those albums. It's a great album, you can put it on start to finish. I love it.
“And that song, again, I had to pick a song, so that's one of the ones that stood out for me. There's one particular line, where he says, "Am I just livin' in the space between the beauty and the pain?" and then he says, “It’s the strangest thing." I was just, ‘Oh my God, I love that.’ I wish I'd written it. So anyway, I'm a huge fan now.”
“I talk about this all the time. I talk about it in almost every interview I've ever done about everything, because it was the first Bob Dylan album I ever heard. So again, it was the album, and no pun intended, but we revisit that album a lot and that song, because now, doing interviews for my album, everybody keeps asking me about the Biblical references. I started quoting one of the lines from this particular song, “Highway 61 Revisited,” where Dylan goes "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,' and Abe said, 'Man, you must be putting me on.'" I've been using that as an example of referencing Biblical stuff in a song.
“Not just that song, but that whole album was a big turning point in my life. When I heard that one I was like 12 and a half years old. I didn't quite understand it all at the time, but with his stuff back then it was hard for anybody to understand a lot of it, because it was steeped in all this mystery and everything. That certainly turned my little 12-year old head around.
“The thing is I’d come from two worlds. To me, that album blends together the literary world and the traditional folk world, both of which I came out of. At that time, I was listening to Woody Guthrie songs, playing Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and traditional folk songs. Of course, with my Dad [Miller Williams] being a poet and that whole literary world, when I heard this album it was like those two worlds came together.
“Well, it's funny that the way I heard that album was this student of my Dad's - a young poet - came over to the house with a copy of it. Back then when a new album came out like that it was a big thing - ‘The new Bob Dylan album is out!’ - and he brought it over to the house. My Dad wasn't really into Bob Dylan all that much, but the guy went into my Dad's office for them to have a meeting and he left the album out in the living room. And so I put it on the turntable. This was 1965 and I put it on the turntable and it blew my 12-year old mind.
“I can remember my Dad's creative writing students; I remember a lot of times hearing them debating about whether Bob Dylan was a poet or a songwriter. The younger writers would say, "He's a poet, he's a poet." And my dad would say, "No, he's not a poet, he's a songwriter. There's a difference." I remember that.”
“Again, it was hard to just pick one song, because it was basically those compilation albums that came out, I think one of them, [King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II], was issued in 1970. It came out on Columbia and when I discovered him that was another complete mind-blowing turnaround.
“I picked this one because it's one of the ones that I play and I like doing it just stripped down, with my guitar player [Stuart Mathis] and me. I recorded it on my Ramblin’ album, I was so young, and my voice sounds so young and innocent back then. Right when I did that album would have been a few years before those Robert Johnson compilation albums came out.
“I'd already been listening to blues stuff but a lot of it was country blues, as opposed to the harder Delta blues. I was listening to Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, stuff like that. Then here comes Robert Johnson. I mean, he was kind of like what punk and heavy metal was to rock music. The lyrics alone were so deep and scary. He's talking about meeting the devil, and ‘the devil this…’ and ‘the devil that…’ And that's another thing. I refer to his music a lot, because people keep asking me about "You talk about the devil a lot in your music?" Well, that's because I love using that as a reference, and that probably started when I heard that Robert Johnson album. It's kind of scary almost.
“And really, these sexual... he's got that one line, "You can squeeze my lemon 'til the juice run down my leg." I mean, Mississippi John Hurt was singing songs about "Make me a pallet down on your floor." That's about as raunchy as it got.”
“She was another one who was a big discovery. I mean, she was one of the few - and you could probably count them on one hand - Delta blues women who played guitar and wrote her own songs. That was highly unusual.
“I don't know if you've read anything about her, but she hung out with all these other blues guys and she was apparently kind of a ball of fire. They’d tried to mess with her, and she'd throw a whisky in their face or whatever and spit on the floor. She was pretty tough apparently, because she had to be.
“I recorded one of her songs too, on that Folkways album. She was a big inspiration for me, and this was another one where it was like, ‘Well, which song is it going to be?’ But that's one that I do.”
“I'm trying to remember how I got turned onto her. Oh, I know what it was, I was at my friend James Trussart’s house in LA. He's a guitar maker, so he's got a very eclectic collection of music. He had a friend there from France and his friend started telling me about this woman, and maybe they gave me a copy of the CD, I don't know, but he said, "You need to check this out." So that's how I got turned on to it.
“Unfortunately, she died from breast cancer at a really young age. I love this particular song because again it's the lyrics that I really like. The line “If I can stand up to angels and men / I'll never get swallowed in darkness again” is really evocative and really well written.
“You can kind of see why I might be drawn to this. Her background is really interesting, and she worked in a circus for a while, with this kind of hippy gypsy existence. That explains the different flavours of music that's in there - the different international, world music flavours, whatever you want to call it.”
“Oh God, Are We There is a great album, start to finish. I put it on and I was listening to it, and I'm like, “God, which song am I going to pick?” and “Your Love is Killing Me” in particular kind of stood out.
“The lyrics are so good, "Break my legs so I won't walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you / Burn my skin so I can't feel you / Stab my eyes so I can't see.” I just thought, ‘God, that's really good, really good songwriting.’ I love her voice on it. I love the way it's recorded, just the whole thing. Then I got to meet her, Tom and I met her and she's really sweet and really cool. So yeah, I was really impressed with her songwriting and everything.
“To be honest, I don't get impressed with that much [modern music] stuff, really. So when something stands out like this, I get really excited about it, like, ‘Wow, this is really good! I'm impressed.’”