Lucinda Williams on singing about trauma and toxic pasts and becoming a better artist with age

Is she rock or country? Who cares? Lucinda Williams gravelly voice and biting lyrics have conquered the USA and deserve to do the same here. The secret, she says, is singing about traumas

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The Independent Culture

“What made it difficult to get a record deal in the first place is that my music fell between the cracks of country and rock,” asserts Lucinda Williams in her distinctive Southern drawl.” When I was first trying to get a deal there was no Americana or alt-country, so they didn’t know how to market me,” says the 62-year old from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who majors in “Gothic starkness”.

It is 37 years since Williams’s blues- and country-flecked debut, Ramblin’, which was swiftly followed by Happy Woman Blues (1980).

However, it wasn’t until Lucinda Williams that the adroit lyricist started garnering critical acclaim, and it wasn’t until 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel World (featuring Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris) that Williams hit pay-dirt and bagged herself a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. 

It has been a long road for the singer-songwriter, who specialises in unflinching, raw vignettes (“He’d call her a sinner/ You’re going to Hell/ Now finish your dinner/ And tell ’em you fell”, she maintains on “Louisiana Story”) about abuse, loss, longing and toxic pasts, and her latest, The Ghosts of Highway 20, could be her most accomplished yet.

One interviewer described the 14-track record as “cosmic folk-rock”, which delights Williams, who maintains that “No one uses the term folk-rock anymore, but I love the term and the likes of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.”

Sporting a black leather jacket and cowgirl boots, she looks more punk-rock than folk-rock, more Chrissie Hynde than Emmylou Harris. When I tell her that the private members’ club we meet at was once renowned for debauchery, she cackles, which she does frequently.

She unleashes another earthy chuckle when I ask whether she agrees with the saucy sentiments in her nimble reworking of an obscure Woody Guthrie song, “House of Earth” (a highlight on The Ghosts of Highway 20), about a prostitute bragging about what she has to offer (“Call me a prostitute and a whore too/ I do these tricks your wife refuses to do”).

Williams admits it was quite a “challenge” to tackle this unusually racy Guthrie song, and she didn’t want to disappoint Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, who is responsible for her father’s archive and personally asked Williams to work on the track, sending her a letter saying “I thought if anyone could handle this song, you could”.

“At first I went, ‘oh my God, this is definitely not your average “This Land is Your Land” Woody Guthrie song’,” says Williams. “And, to be honest, it seemed to me that the lyrics hadn’t been really worked on that much. Some of the lines were a little forced; I feel like I’m treading on sacred ground here but I tried to fix some things a little, and did a little bit of editing..”

“I performed ‘House of Earth’ for the first time at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, for a tribute concert to Woody,” adds Williams, “and Nora said, ‘this has got to be the first song sung about a prostitute at the Kennedy Centre’. She got a real kick out of that.”

The track is a resounding success, as is her adept cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory”, a song adored by her husband and manager, Tom Overby, who produced Highway 20 and is sitting behind me.

The Darkness on the Edge of Town track is dedicated to Tom’s father, who worked in a factory for more than 30 years, while “If There’s a Heaven”(“I’ll be lost when you cross over to the other side,” she laments in her wracked tones) is in memory of Williams’s father, Miller Williams, an academic, “agnostic”, and poet who died last year.

Miller not only introduced his daughter to blues music – they went to see street-singer Blind Pearly Brown, when she was six (“when I think about it, it gives me goosebumps”) – but also took Lucinda, aged five, to see celebrated Southern author Flannery O’Connor at her home.

“O’Connor was his mentor and he called her his ‘greatest teacher’,” Williams recalls. “We went to her family farm and while my dad was talking to her inside the house, I’d chase O’Connor’s peacocks around outside.”

The stark, haunting tracks on The Ghosts of Highway 20 were inspired by a journey back from a gig in downtown Macon, Georgia, passing the towns along Interstate 20, many of which Williams lived in (her father taught English at many Southern universities; in Jackson, Baton Rouge and New Orleans before gaining tenure at the University of Arkansas) or has a personal or family connection to.

She wanted the record to be about a highway, as it’s “so much about the American culture and mythology – ‘Route 66’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, Kerouac’s On the Road”. However, her songs remain deeply personal.

“Everything I write is either about me or is something that I connect with,” she stresses. “I was always that kid on the outside looking in, and because my dad was a writer we travelled so much and I was exposed to so many more things than the other kids.” 

However, while her heartfelt songs have garnered a huge (and evangelical) fanbase (including Elvis Costello and Ray Davies), it has also meant she has had to field some “annoying” and “stupid” questions from interviewers. For instance, around the release of 2008’s Little Honey, she was asked whether her engagement to Overby would affect her prowess as a songwriter of dark materials.

The thought offends Williams: “I’m an artist first and foremost before anything else, that’s what drives me. Yes, I love Tom and Tom loves me and we have a nice house in Studio City [Los Angeles] and a swimming pool, but I still sing about pain; pain doesn’t go away just because you get married and have a nice little house. You know what, no one’s completely happy. No one else makes someone happy. It’s up and down…” I wince and hope Tom hasn’t heard that.

Williams is a straight-talking, candid interviewee and it seems best to allow the musician let rip, which she does on the likes of Donald Trump (“he’s the blustery guy in the bar who has a few drinks; he’s a real-estate agent who doesn’t know anything”), racism (“we are a racist and sexist country”) and indifference (“I absolutely abhor apathy, you have to have some kind of opinion”).

She’s also a strong supporter of the “socialist” Democrat nominee Bernie Sanders: “The young people will vote for him, and people my age, who grew up with certain ideals. Now the Democrat candidates are going: ‘Wow, what if he wins?’”

However, it’s family ties and bitter experience that are her artistic strength, and her world-weary material bears comparison with Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen.

And, like Cohen, she has flourished with age. “I’m somewhat of an anomaly, I guess, because my better songs have been as an older artist, compared to when I was younger,” she admits. “I remember my dad saying that poets weren’t really taken seriously until they were at least in their fifties and sixties.”

After 12 albums and four decades of rich creativity, it’s time these shores took Lucinda Williams more seriously.

Lucinda Williams plays Brooklyn Bowl, London, on 22 and 23 January. The album ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’ is released on 22 January