Lucinda Williams' new LP, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, is a generous, old-fashioned double album. It covers a lot of stylistic territory – blues, folk, country soul, jam-rock – with a lot of musicians, including journeyman jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Louisiana swamp groove master Tony Joe White and longtime Elvis Costello cohort Pete Thomas. After years of label drama, it marks the roots-music pioneer's first release on her own Highway 20, and, surprisingly, it's her first musical collaboration with her father, lauded Arkansas poet Miller Williams, who read at Bill Clinton's first inauguration.
The title of the album comes from "Compassion," a signature poem that Williams' daughter adapted in the song of the same name. "That's something that I've wanted to do for years: to take one of his poems and make a song out of it," says Williams, 61, from her homebase in Los Angeles. "But it's very challenging, you know? Because they're two separate animals, poems and songs. I told my dad about it, and he goes, 'You're going to make me famous!' He's always teasing me about that. He goes, 'You used to be known as my daughter. Now I'm known as Lucinda Williams' father.'"
So, 20 songs: How'd you end up recording so much stuff?
I was on a writing binge, and we just kind of got on a roll. We actually ended up recording enough for three albums. So we decided, "What the hell, let's break the rules and do a double album." Now we have more creative control, because we have our own label. And when you've got a body of work that fits together, it's nice to be able to put it all out there. We have a third group of songs finished that will come out on a separate album later.
That's great. How do you account for the writing binge?
Just changes in life. Getting older and wiser as a songwriter, getting more proficient, I guess. The first big change in my life was when my mother died in 2004. And it kind of started then.
There are a lot of extended guitar passages on these recordings – some really gorgeous stuff.
I don't like to fade at the end of things. The main thing was just to try to get the feel. There were a lot of discussions about, "Is this too long?" The consensus was kind of like, "Don't worry about it."
I like the cover of JJ Cale's "Magnolia," which really goes out there.
Yeah, that was with Bill Frisell. The whole other album that's in the can is pretty much all Bill Frisell with my rhythm section guys, Butch Norton and David Sutton, who tour with me.
Did you know JJ?
No. But he had passed away around the time that we were in the studio, so it was on everybody's minds. And I used to do that song back in the Seventies, before I started writing a lot. It's part of my repertoire.
You've got Tony Joe White on this record, too. He's a real unsung great.
I know. He was out here doing a show, and we asked him if he could stick around for a couple of extra days and come to the studio. What a character. He came in, he's got his hat on and his jeans and his black T-shirt. Cowboy boots. He's got his sunglasses on. And he brought his own wine in. He goes, "I found this wine, and I could drink a whole bottle of it, and I don't get a headache the next day!"
I need to get the name of that wine.
Yeah! I was blown away when I first saw him play live, by how great a guitar player he is. I don't know if a lot of people realize that.
Besides the guitar jams, you've also got songs like "Temporary Nature" and "Walk On," which seem steeped in that concise, early-Sixties, Brill Building kind of sound – Doc Pomus or Carole King.
I'm glad you mentioned that. I'm writing songs more like the stuff that I listen to at home, blues and soul. And when I was writing the newer stuff, I'd been listening to reissues of a lot of the old Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham stuff.
You also play with different vocal styles on this record – sometimes your phrasing is stretched and abstracted. Has your approach to singing changed?
I just think I'm better now than I've ever been. I just want to use my voice in a different, better way and not push so much, and just sing kind of more relaxed.
A lot of it has to do with being comfortable in the studio. I want to be able to hear all the little nuances and everything in my voice. I don't like the vocals to be kind of back in the mix. I notice that with some other albums I listen to, they sort of bury the vocal a little bit, you know? I like that more old-school sound – when you listen to Bobbie Gentry stuff and the vocal is right up front.
Do you pay much attention to mainstream country these days? Anything interesting to you?
Oh, God, no. Are you kidding? No. It's not the lack of talent, necessarily. It's just the production on the albums – I just can't stand it. There's that guy Jamey Johnson, he's amazing. He's great. And there's a handful of 'em. But I don't know. Some of these girls now, you hear about them, and somebody says, "Oh, she's really different. She's really pushing the envelope and really edgy," and all that. And I go, "OK." I listen to it, and I go, "Really? This is edgy?"
"Edgy" is a relative thing in the realm of Nashville.
Yeah. It's like [the bassist] John Ciambotti once said: "Country music today is like Seventies rock without the cocaine." You know? They need to come up with another name for it.