Lucinda Williams goes home: "The Ghost of Highway 20" and the "time warp" of the South

The singer-songwriter talks about her new double album, the legacy of her father and her love of dark songs

Published February 17, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Lucinda Williams   (AP/Rich Fury)
Lucinda Williams (AP/Rich Fury)

Lucinda Williams has been putting out artfully written, beautifully played records for decades now, and it’s tempting to take her for granted. But as her latest, “The Ghost of Highway 20,” shows, these don’t come without a deep expenditure of feeling. Williams is definitely not dashing these off.

Some of “The Ghost of Highway 20” (her second double album in a row) grew out of the recording sessions for her 2014 album “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” but it has a different feel and a different emotional range. It’s not quite a concept record, but it’s very much an album about the small-town and small-city South and the roots music that emerged from those places.

The album also became a tribute to her father, the poet Miller Williams, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in January of 2015. Williams has never been shy about her father’s influence, but this album bears his stamp more than most. “Highway 20” includes a song about his decline, “If My Love Could Kill,” as well as an opening track called “Dust,” based on one of his poems.

Williams, who has toured incessantly over the last few years, spoke to us from her hotel in New York, where she was preparing for her Tuesday night appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” (Williams took a brief break during the conversation to receive a delivery of mouthwash and toothpaste, which she was eager for after a long time on the road. “That’s not very rock ‘n’ roll sounding, is it?” she asked.) The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

This new album, “The Ghost of Highway 20,” feels a little different from your last one: It seems focused on the music and culture of the South. You’ve toured like crazy across your career, and gone back to places that you knew as a child. How much have those places changed since you first got to know them? Are some of them the same?

Some of them are. The seed that was planted – the idea for the song “The Ghost of Highway 20” – was a couple years ago when we went to Macon, Georgia, to play the Cox [Capitol] Theatre. There we were in downtown Macon, and it had hardly changed. It was like a time warp or something. Other than that they’ve renovated the theater a bit. But there was one of those unisex black beauty salon-barber shop places that looked like it had been there since …

Since Otis Redding was there.

Yeah, right, exactly.

I started school in Macon in the early ‘60s. That’s where my dad took me to see Blind Curley Brown, this street singer/preacher/guitar player – he used to sing down there on the street. It was my first exposure to that kind of music; my 5-year-old-brain absorbed that. Then he took me with him when he went to visit a niece of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, which was near Macon. So I was very young, but those experiences had, needless to say, a major impact on me.

Before we lived in Macon, my brother was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and my sister was born in Jackson, where my dad taught. When I went back to Macon, it was like a big circle. When the tour bus pulled onto the highway, I looked out the window and saw all these exit signs for these towns … There’s Vicksburg, there’s Jackson, there’s Monroe, Louisiana – one of the towns my mother lived, where she’s laid to rest. So there’s all that personal stuff, but it’s also a big Civil War area. The Delta blues players who are from around there … The whole place is filled with the spirits of the memories.

Before I wrote that song, I came up with the idea for a label, Highway 20 Records. We were gonna call it Gravel Road Records but someone had already taken that name. But I’ve always been thinking – and America has always been fascinated with this idea of roads and highways and travel.

That goes back on your albums, especially – so many of them have at least one road song.

Exactly. I traveled around – by the time I was born, my dad was teaching at different colleges, until 1971 when he achieved tenure at the University of Arkansas. But until then, we lived all over the South. And he and my mother traveled, when they were growing up, because both of their fathers were Methodist ministers. So my mother lived in different towns around Louisiana, and my dad lived in different towns around Arkansas.

And there’s all the folklore and Woody Guthrie traveling and the hoboes on the trains and Kerouac’s “On the Road” – the pioneers going out West. It’s all about travel. And I love Route 66 – that whole Americana …

Thinking about the South makes you think about your dad. Obviously he was a huge inspiration to you. What were the most important things he taught you?

We were extremely close. We had an extremely close bond growing up. One of the things he said was as a writer never to censor yourself. Maybe it’s because I was exposed to poets and other Southern writers … As a teenager I read everything I could get my hands on by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. I identified with their writing. I’d seen the people they were writing about.

One time I was doing an interview and [the interviewer] asked me, “Are there really people like that in the South? Does that world really exist?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely.”

Another time, someone in Europe asked me, “If you travel in the South now, can you see all those things on the side of the road that you’re talking about?” And I said, “Unfortunately now, you’d probably have to be on the interstate. You’d probably have to get off the interstate, get on the two-lane highways to find it all.”

My dad would write about everything from a cat sleeping in a window to a wreck on a highway. There was no shame or guilt associated with [anything].

So he taught me never to censor myself … People used to ask me, when my songs were first getting discovered and listened to, about how dark my songs were. “They’re so dark, you have so many dark songs!”

So that goes back to the beginning of your career, then? But compared to a lot of poetry your songs are not all that dark.

No they’re not – that’s what I’m saying. But the majority of people don’t read poetry, I guess, or they look at it as different things.

Probably with the “Sweet Old World” album, because that record had “Pineola” and “Sweet Old World” on it – both songs about suicide.

For me it goes back to all the traditional folk songs I grew up listening to – all those Scottish and English ballads…

Like the Child Ballads …

Yeah – the Child Ballads. “Banks of the Ohio,” “Barbara Allen,” this imagery ... “Long Black Veil.” All those mountain songs were so incredibly dark, and deep ... Like that song that Ralph Stanley sang at the Grammys that year, “O Death” ... That inspired my song “Death Came.”

Most people … I guess it’s a lack of education.

There’s a lot of sad songs on the new album. Do sad songs or angry songs purge the emotions from you? Do they have a cathartic effect?

Yes, they’re very cathartic, very therapeutic.

Whenever I’m talking to people who don’t get it I try to explain to them, “OK, I’m an artist first and foremost. Just like a painter, or a poet, so the art is gonna come from me. I’m gonna do it, I have to do it – I do it as a release. It’s my life force. That’s how I deal with things.”

Sometimes I cry. When I cry I know I’ve hit on something ... There’s certain songs when I’ve written then, I just sort of break down. That’s when I know, “OK, this is gonna be good. This is gonna touch people.” Then the craft of it is putting it all together so that it sounds good … But it all comes from me first.

Your voice is also deeper and darker on this record. Were you trying to sing differently?

Not really… But my voice is developing into that more. It’s just the nature of the songs.

I did Steve Earle’s radio show recently and he really hit the nail on the head. He said, “I’ve never heard you this way before – just the sound of it.” He mentioned Chet Baker – who I’d always loved, and he’d always loved, the Chet Baker’s vocals were recorded, right in your face.

Do you mean the early or the late Chet Baker?

The one album that sticks out in my mind, which my dad listened to all the time, was an album called “Baker’s Holiday.”

Right – the Billie Holiday tribute.

I’ve always loved that sound. I’m thrilled that this album is so different. I didn’t make the same album.

A big part of this album is [electric guitarist] Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz [who played acoustic and electric guitar on the album and co-produced it].

Bill Frisell is all over this record. He was only on a few tracks of the last one. We recorded some of them around the period, and it became obvious which songs were going to fit together. Not surprisingly, the majority of the songs Bill played on fit together – and those are the songs on this album. He’s just such a phenomenal … A lot of people think of him as a jazz guitarist. But if you let him go, he can play anything. He does all of these harmonics on his guitar.

I don’t know what to do with the next album … I told [manager/husband] Tom [Overby], I don’t know if I want to make another album without Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz … It’s like a cocoon almost, the way both of them play, them together … And Bill’s sound is so signature, it just seems to wrap itself around the songs, give them a cushion. There aren’t a lot of instruments on these particular tracks – it’s pretty straightforward.

This album is on your own label, Highway 20 … What kind of freedom do you get by doing that that you couldn’t do before?

Well, that last double album – that wouldn’t have happened. After my contract with Lost Highway was over, we were shopping for a new label, and that was what Tom asked one of the labels. What would you think if we put a double album out? They were like, “No.” Right off the bat. It was like, “See ya.”

My prolific-ness – which started shortly after my mother’s death, which was 2004, I started churning out a lot of songs. Right around the time of the “West” album.

Owning your own label allows you to put a song like “Compassion” first [on “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone”] – a stripped-down acoustic thing. Just to make all your own decisions. Not worry about the length of some of the songs. On this album, we had to make a second CD because of that [almost 13-minute] song “Faith and Grace.”

You’ve got a lot of long songs on this album.

You see, I love that!

You get more emotion that way?

Yeah – it’s just more organic and natural. If you saw us play live, that’s how it would be. Instead of feeling that you have to edit everything down. That song “Faith and Grace” – we actually did shorten it, believe it or not. The original version is like 19 minutes long.

That’s a Staples Singers song, right?

I think it’s traditional. The version I got it from was Mississippi Fred McDowell, on an older album he did with his wife and some church people sing on it. Fantastic song – I adapted it, moved the lyrics around. Took the “Jesus” out of it to make it spiritual rather than religious.

But that was one of those that just went and went – just a meditative, transcendental thing. David Bianco, our engineer, took the track and did a remix, “A Little More Faith and Grace.” It’s so good! We’re gonna release the remixed version on Record Store Day. When we got done with that track, I said, “That reminds me of John Coltrane’s 'A Love Supreme' or something."

I remember working on “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” working with Rick Rubin – it was supposed to come out on his label, American. Long story short, I sent him some of the songs, and one of them was “Drunken Angel.” He thought it was too long. He said, “You need to take out a couple of verses.” I said, “Like hell!” Can you believe that, though?

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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Lucinda Williams Music The Ghost Of Highway 20