Lucinda Williams had a one-word response when her husband and manager Tom Overby suggested that she re-record her 1992 album Sweet Old World: “Really?”
Although Williams has consistently performed a few songs from the album over the years in concert, including the title track and “Pineola,” she felt that she had outgrown most of the others and was reluctant to revisit it. That was until she listened to the songs with fresh ears.
“After we got in the recording studio and we got going, I got really pumped up about it,” says Williams, who re-recorded the album in 10 days with her touring and studio band – guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton – and longtime friend and collaborator, legendary steel-guitar player Greg Leisz, who actually participated in the early sessions for the original LP. Williams will release the re-sequenced album with four bonus tracks under the updated title This Sweet Old World on September 29th via Thirty Tigers. (Listen to the opening track and first single, “Six Blocks Away,” above.)
“That was one of the ones where I was like, ‘Ugh,'” she says of “Six Blocks Away,” about a painful longing for something that, as Tom Petty once put it, is “so close and still so far out of reach.”
“That one really, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a surprise,'” says Williams of the ambling rocker, reinvigorated with a chiming, jangly Rickenbacker guitar line that evokes everyone from Petty to the Byrds to R.E.M.
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While Williams stayed true to some of the original arrangements with songs she still performs, like “Little Angel Little Brother,” others got wholesale reinventions. In the case of “Drivin’ Down a Dead End Street” that meant not only new lyrics and a revised melody, but a fresh title to boot.
“The last couple of verses are new,” says Williams of the song originally called “He Never Got Enough Love.” Overby discovered the demo in the archives and Williams recalls shelving it because Bob Dylan had a track with the same title around that time. “Of course, in deference to Bob, I said to myself, ‘Well, okay, never mind, I can’t do that now,'” she says. Overby, who co-produced the album with Williams, convinced her to go back to the original concept.
“What I wrote it about was this article I’d read in the paper about this kid who had shot and killed somebody just in cold blood, kind of a Gary Gilmore situation,” recalls Williams. “In the article, they were interviewing this kid’s uncle, and the guy was describing this kid’s life and how his mother left him and his dad was gone all the time, and the uncle said, ‘He was just driving down a dead end street.’ And I said, ‘Wow, that’s a story. That’s a song'”
Part of Williams’ hesitance to look back at Sweet Old World stemmed from the turmoil that surrounded the original recording, which was released between her critically-acclaimed self-titled album on Rough Trade in 1988 – whose song “Passionate Kisses” became a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter – and her 1998 high-profile commercial breakthrough, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road.
“Greg was remembering stuff that I’d forgotten about the sessions, because that was a very difficult album to make,” says Williams of Leisz. “People talk about the history behind the making of Car Wheels, they should hear about what happened with Sweet Old World.”
Among the issues were record label woes common to many artists – “I went through about three or four different label changes” – false starts and battles with various A&R men and producers who were not a good musical match. One A&R guy’s unfamiliarity with Blonde on Blonde was a major red flag.
“We cut a bunch of stuff and then I went back and worked on some new songs, and that’s when I came up with the title song,” recalls Williams of the tumultuous time. “It was just probably two or three times of trying to get it right.”
Recording This Sweet Old World has offered her some closure, however. “It just won’t let go,” says the Grammy winner, currently on tour for her 2016 release Ghosts of Highway 20. (She will also open three dates for Tom Petty at the Hollywood Bowl in September. )
“When you look back at your early albums, probably a lot of people go, ‘God, I should just recut these songs,’ because, needless to say the production is like night and day between the original one and this one,” says Williams. “It’s like a whole new album.”