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Review: Lucinda Williams Drives Around Her Old Haunts on ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’

Lucinda Williams at 16th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference - Day 3
(Photo: Erika Goldring / Getty Images for Americana Music)
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 05, 2016
Label: Highway 20 / Thirty Tigers

Give Lucinda Williams’ new album The Ghosts of Highway 20 even a cursory listen and it’s quickly apparent the veteran songwriter has death on her mind. With its first few guitar harmonics ringing like church bells, album opener “Dust” sets the mortality-stricken tone for the record with the refrain “even your thoughts are dust,” a line Williams borrowed from her father Miller Williams, an Arkansas-born poet (best known for writing Bill Clinton’s second-term inaugural poem) who succumbed to Alzheimer’s in January 2015.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Williams is a bit preoccupied. Finding inspiration in a long stretch of Southern highway that connects her to a number of personal landmarks, Williams revisits childhood haunts and loves lost, mining both her personal history and the sum total of her musical influences  blues, gospel, alt-country  to achieve what is easily one of the best albums of her career.

Though borne from the same sessions that birthed 2014’s critically-lauded double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, the songs that comprise The Ghosts of Highway 20 don’t feel like outtakes. Aided by veteran musicians and longtime collaborators Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, the latter of whom also lent co-production duties to Williams and her husband Tom Overby, Williams thoughtfully grouped these 14 tracks in 86 minutes (!) to form a loose narrative. It’s a road album, sure, but more importantly, it’s the character study of a woman coming face to face with the ghosts of her past, dredging up every blues-tinged “Bitter Memory” along the way.

That fixation with the end is evident in the song titles  there’s “Death Came” and “Doors of Heaven,” to name a couple  but rings startlingly clear in Williams’ lyrics, which frequently delve into both spiritual and personal mythology. “Who robbed me of your memory / Robbed me of your time,” she sings in “If My Love Could Kill,” a slow-burning epic buoyed by Frisell’s and Leisz’s guitar work, that finds Williams angrily confronting the illness that took her father. A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town track “Factory” proves a perfect fit, as one could easily imagine Williams encountering men who “walk through these gates with death in their eyes” as she rambles down Interstate 20. And in the album’s thirteen-minute closing song “Faith and Grace,” an interpretation of the Staple Singers’ hard-to-find original, Williams ponders just what it takes to “run this race” (the answer: to “get right with God,” as she repeatedly intones late in the track, echoing her own track of the same name from 2001’s atmospheric Essence).

It’s notable that Williams recorded both Bone and Ghosts after the shuttering of Lost Highway, the label she called home from 2001’s Essence to 2011’s Blessed; this recent duo of double albums serves as something of a bookend to that era, following the groundbreaking trio of her audacious 1988 self-titled effort, 1992’s more refined Sweet Old World and 1998’s crowning, Grammy-winning critical smash Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Nearly forty years in, Williams, 63, is at a place where some are likely contemplating the mortality of her career, too. But on The Ghosts of Highway 20, she’s never sounded more alive.