In order for Lucinda Williams to write a song, the conditions have to be perfect. "Nobody can be around," she says. "I like to be totally alone. I get out my guitar, and I spread all of my notes across the kitchen table." In early 2005, being alone wasn't a problem. Her love life was in a shambles after a long-term relationship she describes as "really destructive and really difficult" came to an end. "Then I had this brief, uneventful rock & roll fling — just oil for the motor," she says. Her mother had passed away, leading her to cancel dates from a world tour behind her seventh album, World Without Tears.
Hunkering down in total solitude, Williams entered the most prolific period of her life — a blast of creativity during which she accumulated more than 20 songs. Cuts like the tender eulogy "Mama You Sweet" and "Unsuffer Me" (sample lyric: "My joy is dead") ended up on West, the somber, soul-baring collection that Williams released in 2007. But she also wrote plenty of songs that weren't as grim. Some of the more upbeat, rocking tracks — —"Real Love," "Circles and X's" and the hilarious "Jailhouse Tears," on which she duets with Elvis Costello — form the core of her righteous and raw new disc, Little Honey.
On a chilly night in August, Williams is sitting at the kitchen table of her new home in the hilly L.A. neighborhood of Studio City. Her blue fingernails match her Doors T-shirt, and she's sipping a glass of red wine. Seated beside her is the reason her mood lately has matched the upbeat vibe of the new record: her fiance, Tom Overby. Unlike basically every man she's been in a relationship with, Overby isn't a musician. "That last unhappy relationship was the straw that broke the camel's back," she says, looking into Overby's eyes. "I said, 'That's it! I'm done with the fuckin' games and the rock & roll bullshit. I'm done with the bad boys!'"
Of all places, the couple met in a Hollywood hair salon, where Williams was treating a girlfriend to some new hair extensions. "We were the last ones there," she says. "Tom dropped in to get his hair cut, and he introduced himself to me. I was attracted to him right away — that sweet smile, those twinkly eyes, that gold tooth." After a night on the town, hitting the Hollywood spot Velvet Margarita and the singer-songwriter haven the Hotel Cafe, Williams was smitten. Overby, who has worked as an A&R director and an executive at Rest Buy, drove Williams home. "The tequila went to my head," Williams says. "I plopped into bed and woke up hoping that there was a note from him. And there was."
Initially, Williams had doubts about Overby. His low-key demeanor troubled her, causing Williams to fear that a relationship without rock & roll turmoil might negatively affect her art. "To be honest, it was a big test for me after I got involved with Tom and we moved in together," she says. "I said to myself, Am I still going to be able to write songs? Am I still going to get inspiration? Will that part of me continue to grow and be alive?' Because if that part of me dies, then I die."
Williams conquered her doubts. "I actually started writing positive love songs," she says, citing Little Honey tracks like "Tears of Joy" and "Plan to Marry" — both inspired by Overby. On "Honey Bee," Williams growls, "I'm so glad you stung me/Now I've got your honey/All over my tummy." On the slow-burning blues number "Tears of Joy," she sings, "You give my life meaning, that's why I wear your ring/And why I'm crying tears of joy." It's a happiness that she's been searching for since her 1998 breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, when she famously declared, "You took my joy and I want it back."
"I've finally found the right relationship where I can blossom as a writer and grow with somebody and be happy," she says. "I had to wait until I was in my 50s, but, you know, I'm a late bloomer anyway." Overby, who is 50, is a calming influence on Williams, who no longer drinks hard alcohol. "I still like to go out and drink, but now it's just red wine." And though her life as a drifter has been well documented in her lyrics, her new home — which she calls her first "star house" — is a major step toward stability. Her future husband, who shares Williams' deep knowledge of traditional music, also took the reins of her career, shortly before the 2007 death of Williams' longtime manager, Frank Callari. "He's full of great ideas," says Williams.
Last year, Overby arranged a series of concerts in New York and L.A. in which Williams performed her classic albums — 1988's Lucinda Williams, 1992's Sweet Old World, 1998's Car Wheels, 2001's Essence and 2003's World Without Tears —— in their entirety. He also encouraged Williams to record an EP of protest songs, titled Lu in '08 (to be released digitally on October 28th), which includes a topical new song, "Bone of Contention," in addition to live versions of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." "I'm a yellow-dog Democrat," Williams says, "which is a Southern expression that means you always vote Democrat. I love this country, and I'm concerned that people aren't going to be looking at the issues. Like, 'I'm gonna vote for the cute babe who hunts.'"
In late August, Williams flies up to Seattle with her band for the annual Bumbershoot festival. Performing on an outdoor stage in the shadow of the Space Needle, she reminds thousands of fans to "get out there and vote." On a warm late-summer afternoon, Williams hides her eyes under the brim of a black fedora. Despite her crippling fear of crowds, which she's never been able to shed (her nervousness causes her to drop lines, so she performs with lyrics propped on a music stand), she seems confident and happy. Backed by her heavy-hitting band, Buick 6, Williams kicks into "Real Love," Little Honey's opening track. "I found the love I've been looking for/It's a real love, it's a real love," she sings, shooting smiles into the wings, where Ovcrby stands. Eventually, he breaks his managerial pose — arms folded, all business — to crack a smile and expose his gold tooth.
The irony is that Williams didn't even write "Real Love" about Overby —— but she sings it to him now. "I got that song out of that fling before I met Tom," she says at her kitchen table. "I mean, a lot of the guys I've been with, if they're rock & roll musicians, there ends up being a little competition — they feel threatened. But rather than feeling threatened by my strength, Tom is inspired by it, because he's a real man. He gives me confidence, and confidence is everything."