Lucinda Williams has been around long enough to remember when she couldn’t get a record deal because she was deemed “too rock for country” and “too country for rock,” a fact that would bewilder the audience for XM’s Outlaw Country channel or anyone who ever subscribed to No Depression. But you can trace entire formats back to the 63-year-old, Dylan-loving singer-songwriter, whose greatest secret has always been her simplicity: 1988’s famed Lucinda Williams starts with a jubilant song titled “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” which is also most of its lyric.
Her new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, is simple in a different way, by stretching 14 songs across two discs for an hour and a half, slowly and hauntingly. There aren’t many artists who can release two double albums in a row (following 2014’s two-disc Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone) and still come off uncomplicated, and even fewer that hide a rigorous editor’s hand beneath the fog; it shouldn’t be a surprise that her late father, Miller Williams, was a poet who read his work at President Clinton’s 1997 inauguration.
But all the way back to her late-’70s beginnings, Lucinda has been honing her beautiful, stately melodies through a ragged voice and arrow-headed lyrics about unkept secrets and roadside tears. Time deemed her America’s Best Songwriter in 2002, a title established thanks to unanimously acclaimed efforts like 1998’s long-brewing, Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, while fellow singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter scored a hit with her version of Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” in 1994. Williams spoke to SPIN via phone about each one of her albums, from her earliest days dealing with a producer who grafted on drums without her permission, to her latter-day prolific streak brought on by the unexpected death of her mother.
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Your first album was all covers of blues and country standards, which isn’t like anything else in your discography.
Jeff Ampolsk, a friend of mine from New Orleans — this was in the ‘70s, and at the time I was back living at my dad’s house in Arkansas — had just made a record for Folkways [Records] called God, Guts, and Guns, and he’d said, “You know, I can help you make a record for Folkways.” And I said, “Really?” Of course I was familiar with the iconic Folkways stuff: Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger albums. So he said, “Yeah, I’ll give you their address. Just send them a cassette tape and whatever.” So I did and at the time I’m thinking, “Well, they’re not gonna be interested in my songs.”
I just assumed they were gonna want more of a traditional approach to things. Plus, I wasn’t really as confident at that time about my songwriting and all that. I don’t know, I just thought Folkways, you know, traditional field recordings. So I sent them this tape and they sent me back a one-page contract and $250 and I went to Jackson, Mississippi and recorded it. Then the second one, they sent me one-page contract and $500. By then, I had some songs and all so, you know, good.
Happy Woman Blues (1980)
I was always into different kinds of music but just by default, I was singing and playing acoustic guitar; I didn’t know how to dance or anything. So it would take some time, over a year, for me to kind of progress into the stuff that I ended up doing later, the more Southern soul, country-rock, whatever-you-want-to-call-it kind of thing. On Happy Woman Blues, I was in Houston with these two guys, Mickey White and Rex Bell, and we went to Sugar Hill Studios and recorded. A friend of mine helped; he threw in some of his own money towards it, and we did it in about three days.
On the last day after we already finished recording everything, I came in to listen to the tracks, and studio engineer Mickey Moody had brought a drummer in, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, and added overdubbed drums. There was my first experience with working with a producer, trying to control me. I was horrified because I didn’t want a drummer on the album. I didn’t have a drummer, that just wasn’t my thing at the time. Now when you listen to it, it’s not that big of a deal, but at the time it was.
And if that wasn’t enough, my friend who was helping finance some of it, the studio called him up and says, “We haven’t been paid.” It turns out we paid Mickey Moody and he absconded with the money, took off, and the studio didn’t get paid. So that was our introduction, like, “Welcome to the music world” and whatever.
Lucinda Williams (1988)
The reason [for the large gap between Happy Woman Blues and Lucinda Williams] was because they kept telling me it fell on the cusp between country and rock. After I did [Blues], I moved to Los Angeles in 1984 at the suggestion of a couple of friends of mine who would help me get a couple gigs. I just ended up staying out there, which was the best decision I could’ve ever made, even though some of my friends in Austin were like, “Oh, you’re gonna hate it out there, they’re gonna eat you alive, you’re gonna come back to Austin.”
There was an actual really cool thing going on out in L.A. in the mid-‘80s, [acts] like the Long Ryders, the Lonesome Strangers, the Blasters, Rosie Flores, and X. I was just opening for bands and a lot of the labels were noticing me and would come to my gigs, but nobody would sign me; they all passed on me, even the smaller labels like Rhino and Rounder.
One of the record label guys said I needed to work on my songs more, and at this point I pretty much had all the songs that ended up on the Rough Trade album; I have a meeting with him and he says, “Well, you need to go back to the drawing board because none of your songs have bridges.” Two of the songs he was talking about, one was “Pineola” and one was “Changed the Locks,” which are now two of my most popular songs. Obviously… I didn’t listen to him. That was one of those turning points. At the end of the meeting, I went back to my little apartment in Silver Lake and immediately got out my Bob Dylan and Neil Young records and said to myself, “These songs don’t have bridges either.”
Just as I was thinking about maybe heading back to Austin, I got a call from Robin Hurley who was one of the main guys at Rough Trade Records. He said, “We’ve been listening to your stuff and we love your voice and your songs. Would you want to make a record maybe?” And they’d never even seen me play live. They had the Smiths, the Pixies, but they were trying to kind of broaden their landscape a little bit and get into some American roots music. Yeah, it took a punk label, out of London, England, to finally take a chance on me. They were the only ones.
Sweet Old World (1992)
The self-titled album was the big breakthrough. But it still was one of the more awkward periods for me because I wasn’t used to the pattern of writing, recording, touring… The thing was that, after Rough Trade, I was on and off of three different record labels through no fault of my own, but people were either leaving and getting fired or getting laid off or whatever, all this upheaval was going on. Soon after the Rough Trade album came out, I was getting interest from major labels. One of them was RCA and I would never have thought about going to a major label, except that [then-president] Bob Buziak was running things and he was really cool and he was into the music. He wanted to signed me, so I decided to go to RCA and then no sooner did I get on there… he had a falling out with somebody. He wasn’t a numbers man, he was a music guy. So he left and all the great, cool people left with him. And now I’m stuck with RCA where I don’t want to be, with all these people who don’t understand me.
But anyway, I cut Sweet Old World with the same group of people I worked with on the Rough Trade album. I didn’t feel that all my songs were up to snuff. You know a lot of times what happens with a new artist, it’s time to make the next album and it’s like, “Wow I’ve gotta come up with songs that are as good as the other ones.” I want the album to be as good as the other one. And that was a little scary, ‘cause I set my standards pretty high. So we took a break and that’s when I wrote the title song “Sweet Old World,” and also “Little Angel, Little Brother.” “Pineola” was a much older song that I’d just been carrying around with me, but the other guys said, “Oh yeah, that’s a great song. Let’s record it.”
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
That’s the one that I’ll never live down. Nobody understands all the stuff that was going on. They think that I was a perfectionist, blah blah blah. Again, it really was like a blessing in disguise that there was all that time in between [Sweet Old World and Car Wheels] because I had all that time to write all those songs, like “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” I mean “Drunken Angel” took a long time to write; I worked on that for a long time. That one and “Lake Charles” and “Car Wheels,” too, were all just a labor of love. Those didn’t just pop out.
I just wanted them to be good, and at that time I was still sending songs to my dad. Wanted to make sure he thought they were good before I recorded them because I really looked up to him and he was always my mentor of sorts. My dad said, “Well I don’t think you should use the word ‘angel’ in ‘Lake Charles’ because you already used it in ‘Drunken Angel’ and now you’re being kind of redundant.” He said, “Can’t you change that to something else? What about the devil whispered in your ear?” and I said, “No, dad, that’s not gonna work. It has to be ‘angel.'” And he just said, “Okay, but that’s it. You’ve used your quota for ‘angel.’ You can’t use it in any other songs.” When I had the songs for the Essence album, I said, “You don’t have any comments?” and he said, “Nope.” I asked, “So does that mean I graduated?” And he said, “Yep.”
The thing with Car Wheels was I didn’t want to make the same-sounding album again. I was trying to go for a certain vocal sound that I felt like I still hadn’t gotten on any of my albums up to that point. Steve Earle invited me to sing on his album, [1996’s] I Feel Alright, that song “You’re Still Standing There,” when I went to Nashville. I just loved the vocal sound that Ray Kennedy, his engineer, came up with. So I talked to [longtime collaborator and producer] Gurf [Morlix] about it and I just wasn’t ready to let the album go. But Gurf didn’t agree with me; he goes, “It sucks, I don’t like the sound of it.” And I said, “Well, I do.” Much to the dismay of Gurf, who left halfway through the project and hasn’t talked to me since.
You haven’t spoken since the Car Wheels sessions?
No, he doesn’t want me in his life anymore. He’s very weird about it. It is funny, it’s laughable. Actually, he played in L.A. last year and I went to see him and I was anxious about it but I was really looking forward to it. But he refused to talk to me, went backstage, wouldn’t come out. [Laughs.]
After I’d won a [Best Contemporary Folk Album] Grammy for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I couldn’t make the same record again. I kind of just gave myself permission to go and do whatever I want to do. With one of the songs, “Are You Down?,” I remember thinking, “I don’t know how this is gonna go over because there aren’t many lyrics to it, it’s not a narrative song, it depends on the music more than the lyrics.” I always wanted to have the freedom to do that, but I was worried how people were gonna accept it. When that album came out, not everybody liked it at first. When I was writing the songs for Essence, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album had just come out, which I loved the sound on. The simplicity and the sparseness inspired me, letting the band do more stuff and stretching out a little bit.
World Without Tears (2003)
I always thought World Without Tears had a pronounced soul, and even hip-hop influence on songs like “Righteously” and “Sweet Side.”
I was really inspired at the time by that Lauryn Hill album; we were neck and neck in a lot of the [critics’] polls. I remember right before the Essence album, it was the first time that I’d ever done this, I looked at the Grammy nominations and I was like, “You know, I have heard about a lot of these albums, and for once I’m gonna go down and buy these albums and listen to them.” So I went to Tower Records in Nashville with a list of all the bunch of stuff that I was curious about. Another one of them was Diana Krall. Lauryn Hill inspired “Righteously,” and Diana Krall’s album inspired “Overtime,” which is one of my favorite songs.
I was touring a lot and I didn’t have songs ready for a next album yet and that’s when that live album [2005’s Live @ the Fillmore] came out, ‘cause I was getting pressure from the label to put out a record. That was a rough time. My mother died, she passed away in 2004. That’s really when I [began] this prolific period that really hasn’t stopped since then. When I was writing the songs for West, almost every other day I’d bring a new song into the studio, and ended up with enough songs for a double album. But the label didn’t want to do that, so I had to wait and put some of the songs out on West and some on the Little Honey album, which just felt kind of disjointed.
Little Honey (2008)
I don’t know, I guess Little Honey didn’t really do that well.
Do you mean artistically or financially?
Probably both. Little Honey, that was when Tom [Overby, her manager and husband] and I got together and every time I did an interview they would say, “Well, are you still gonna be able to write songs? Like, what are you gonna write about now?” And of course I’d try to explain, like, that’s an idiotic thing to ask me. “What are you gonna write about?” I’m an artist, I’m gonna write about whatever. There’s more things to write about than unrequited love.
The Blessed album was kind of my way of saying, “See?” There were some love songs I wrote for Tom, “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” which ended up being used in the True Blood series. But then there were humanity songs like “Blessed” and “Born to Be Loved,” and there was “Soldier’s Song,” which I was really proud of. I always wanted to be able to write more topical songs, like protest songs or songs making statements about war and poverty. Bob Dylan was always so great at that, on “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But I did it a different way; it was my statement about the horrors and anguish of a senseless war, but I did it from the perspective of a soldier who’s over there and everything. This singer-songwriter Sean Rowe, oh my God. Tom played me a video clip of [his version of] “Soldier’s Song” on YouTube and I just about cried. It’s so good. It might be the best cover of mine that anybody’s done.
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014)
We discovered this little studio in North Hollywood because I went in there to do a track for another project, and fell in love with it. It’s this really old studio from the ’60s that he found, somebody told him that it was for sale, and the owner didn’t have a clue as to what he had. Turns out, a lot of really cool music had been recorded there back in the ’60s and ’70s. So the owner, David, bought it and fixed it up and resurrected it. It’s got this really great sound and it’s way down in, like, the Mexican part of North Hollywood. We were gonna just set up house there and not spend so much money.
One day we came in and it was the week that Lou Reed had just died, so we cut a great version of “Pale Blue Eyes,” which we still haven’t released. I’d bring in a new song every few days — we had different guitar players coming in, just trying different things, so it was just a really good situation being able to do that and just keep going. Every so often we’d have to take a break and go do some shows or whatever, break for the holidays, and then we’d go back. After it was all said and done, we ended up with about 35 tracks of material and it became pretty obvious at that point which stuff fit together better.
The Ghosts of Highway 20 (2016)
The only reason [Ghosts] is a double album is because of the [near-13-minute] length of “Faith and Grace.” And it’s edited down. The actual, original length of that song is 19 minutes. The drummer on that played with Peter Tosh, and was actually there when Peter Tosh was shot. And he was shot also but he survived, and so he came in to play on it and brought this other guy with him, he was head of the Rastafarian church in L.A. Everybody started playing and we got into this groove, I just started going off on the whole spontaneous vocal thing, and every so often, the older Rastafarian guy, you can hear him going, “Ahhh.” Just sitting over in the corner with his sunglasses on like a beatnik or something, and the drummer guy, he never missed a beat. When we got done with it, we walked out, we listened, everybody was just like, “My God, this reminds me of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.” That was one of the most amazing days in the studio.
Did you know going in that you wanted to stretch out the songs to these epic lengths?
No, it was all really organic and spontaneous. I’ve always loved the Neil Young stuff where he just goes off on guitar; I just can’t get enough of that kind of stuff. The Allman Brothers, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Nobody does that anymore ‘cause they’re all worried about, “Oh it’s too long, people aren’t gonna be patient enough to listen to it.”