“Hello?” Lucinda Williams intones, her voice full of sleep as she answers the phone in California. “I haven’t been up too long,” she admits, but clearly, the 61-year-old musician is no slacker. Her new LP, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is her first double album, and the debut release for her own Highway 20 Records, named for the road that runs through “all the towns I grew up in when I was little: Jackson, Vicksburg, Macon…”
In 18 original songs, plus a collaboration with her father, poet Miller Williams, and a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia,” Williams walks a country-soul path through the delta and deep South of her youth, remembering the blind blues singers she encountered on the streets of Macon and chasing Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks at the writer’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia.
“Every time I’ve been there, I just get so nostalgic,” she says, an emotional dip in her voice. And then an upswing as she reports on all matters Lucinda: “There’s just all kinds of positive, really great changes.”
In this candid chat with Rolling Stone Country, she muses about getting better with age, getting a nasty kiss-off from producer Gurf Morlix and getting her dues paid via supermarket sausage sales.
You’ve been in a prolific zone for quite sometime now, and this album offers 20 songs. What got into you?
[Laughs] I don’t know. We actually recorded enough for three albums. It’s really unprecedented. It seems like it started after my mother died, which was in 2004. That’s when I was writing all those songs, right before West came out. When we were completing that album, we actually had enough for a double album, but the record label didn’t want to do a double album. So we had to split them up between West and Little Honey, which I didn’t like because once I get all the songs and recording done, I just want to put that out and move on. But that was the first real prolific time.
Your marriage to Tom Overby, who is credited as a co-producer with yourself and Greg Leisz, seems to have inspired you, as well.
Yeah, when Tom and I got together, it was definitely a marking point in my life and career as a songwriter, because it felt really liberating to know I was with the right person. It let me explore other avenues of writing. I wasn’t going to just be writing about unrequited love anymore. And it was the first time I’d been in a relationship where I felt supported like that. That was always the big test for me before: “Am I going to be able to be with this person and still write?” I’d always dreamed of feeling inspired in the relationship.
What’s an example of how he supports you creatively?
Well, I’d kept all my old work tapes and demos, and Tom was going through them, and he stumbled across, “It’s Gonna Rain,” which ended up on this release. I wrote that when I was still living in Nashville. And I had an older song that Tom encouraged me to go back and look at again, even though I said, “Really?” It’ll be on the next album. It’s called “Jazz Side of Life.” I wrote it back in the Seventies. We also recorded Lou Reed‘s “Pale Blue Eyes,” which will be on the next release.
So you’ve already recorded it?
Yeah! We were in the studio and we were comfortable and we just kept going. We weren’t quite sure what we were going to do with all the songs yet, and how we were going to separate them all. We just saw that the first one had to be a double album, because we didn’t want to have to choose.
On this release, you make great use of Elvis Costello‘s rhythm section, Davey Faragher [bass] and Pete Thomas [drums]. That’s a real departure for you.
Yeah, usually I just go in with my regular band, and this time I mixed it up quite a bit. Val McCallum, Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas do a trio called Jackshit that’s really great. It’s blues and country. And I’d been sitting in with them… so it just made sense. And I was really happy with the arrangements.
How did you work together in the studio?
We worked to get the right groove, and sometimes it was hard. I’d be trying to explain it to Pete, and he had this great way of using another song as a referral for the tempo. There was one that we were trying to figure out… I sang it over and over, and I could see his brain working. He went, “Dusty Springfield’s ‘Breakfast in Bed.'” And he played a little bit of it, and I went, “That’s it! Okay guys, we got it!” And then we’d go in and do two or three takes, and that would be it. And that’s pretty much how we approached the whole thing.
Jakob Dylan makes a vocal appearance, too.
Yeah, Stuart Mathis [from the Wallflowers] is pretty much the regular guitar player in my band now, because the Wallflowers aren’t doing too much right now. And we had talked with Jakob in the past about trying to work together, so there was always that connection. So he came in, and I love what he does on “It’s Gonna Rain.” Every time I’d look at him I’d go, “Goddamn, this is Bob Dylan‘s son.” [Laughs] He’s such a sweet guy, down to earth.
Your father has a large presence on this album, starting with “Compassion,” his poem that you turned into a song, adding music and additional words. The album title comes from that poem, as well. Did it feel weird to be altering his work?
No, I was actually thrilled. We had used that same line, “Down where the spirit meets the bone,” on the inside of the West album. And Tom said, “God, if you could turn that poem into a song, it would just tie everything together.” I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but I started working on it and finally did it. It’s a tribute to him. In the credits, I wrote a separate little line that says, “Dad, as Flannery O’Connor was to you, you were my greatest teacher.”
How’s your father doing? I was sorry to hear he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
He’s hanging in there. I don’t hear from him as often. He used to email back and forth more, so I can tell that way a little bit. But whenever we talk on the phone, he’s always really aware and present and funny. He makes fun of his Alzheimer’s now. At first he was real upset about it. Now if he repeats himself, he’ll say, “Oh well, my mind just doesn’t work the same way anymore.” He’s got a really good attitude about it.
In a way, this is your Memphis record. It just wasn’t recorded in Memphis.
Exactly. That’s a good way to put it.
What got you in that groove?
I go through periods of listening to different things at different times. And there was a reissue of a lot of Dan Penn stuff, and Fame Studios recordings, so that’s probably a lot of what I was wrapping my head around at the time. But I’ve always loved that stuff. And Tony Joe White. I had written that song “Protection” last year. We had gone down to this club and seen this guy, Ryan Tedder, who co-wrote Adele‘s “Rumor Has It” and “Turning Tables,” and he sang some of that. So I got inspired by that and started messing around in my writing mode, and that’s when I came up with “Protection.” And that led me to pursue that style and do something besides regular country and ballads.
Tony Joe White appears on the album. He was a perfect choice, given the material.
Tony Joe and I got to know each other when I was still in Nashville. I sang [“Closing in on the Fire”] on his album [Heroines, 2004], where he had different females, like Emmylou Harris and Shelby Lynne come in. And his daughter, Michelle White, lives here in L.A., so she gets in touch with me whenever Tony Joe’s in town playing. He came in and played at The Mint when we were in the studio, and Tom said, “Let’s see if he can come in a couple days.” He’s just mind-blowingly good. We were just sitting there listening, and I said, “Goddamn, he’s like a Delta Jimi Hendrix. It’s like psychedelta!” He hung around a couple of days and then he had to go. He said, “I gotta get back to my fishin’.”
Other than the country-soul format, do you see a theme running through this album?
My writing reflects where I am in my life at that time, so you could say it revolves around maturity and wisdom, with a little bit of wistfulness. Of course, there’s a sadness and wistfulness in dealing with my dad’s Alzheimer’s, and I think it’s just age and experience. And confidence. I’ve been blessed with is this ability to keep growing, no matter how old I get. My voice is better than it’s ever been. Over the years, I’ve learned to write songs more for my voice, which I didn’t use to do. For a lot of these songs, I was sitting down and I picked a key that felt real relaxed, sort of like in the old days when jazz singers sat down and sang in the studio instead of belting it out all the time. They sang a little closer to the mike.
When you speak conversationally, you fully enunciate. But when you sing, you get into a late-night groove that sounds as if you’ve knocked back a couple.
That’s what I mean about learning how to do different things with my voice. My dad was always very strict about enunciating. But it wouldn’t sound the same if I enunciated while I was singing. [Laughs] But it’s part of just being more relaxed vocally. I think I was in an identity crisis, that I just hadn’t really found both sides of my songwriting and my voice. The two have finally come together in a way on this album that they never have before.
The songs on the new album aren’t as angry as some in your past, but you do still mine your trademark Gothic starkness. And you revisit the Pentecost in the rocking blues of “Everything But The Truth” and especially in the swampy “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
I’m fascinated with the idea of God and Satan, good and evil.
Both of your grandfathers were Methodist ministers, so some of it comes from there, and some of it filtered down from the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But it seems very real to you. Some years ago, you told the New York Times about a recurring nightmare. You said, “Sometimes I dream I am in a house and I am afraid to go into a part of the house, because there is a ghost or demonic force.”
Yeah, I had that dream a few different times. I think it comes from being a writer, and growing up in the deep South with an imaginative mind, and reading Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and absorbing all that when I was young, like 15 and 16. I just got obsessed with Southern gothic literature and read everything I could get my hands on, because I identified with it. I saw it in real life. And it was dark. There’s just something mysterious and beautiful about it. A lot of that deals with the Pentecostal, deep South biblical stuff. I grew up riding down along the highway and seeing those signs that said, “Repent! Repent! Jesus Saves.”
And your father’s poetry deals with it, too, especially his earlier work.
Yeah. Like his poem, “Why Does God Permit Evil?” The story behind that is that he picked up a matchbook and he looked inside the cover and it said, “Why does God permit evil? For the answer to this and other questions, write to P.O. Box such and such, such and such, wherever.” So he wrote this poem around trying to imagine the person who sits in this room somewhere reading these letters.
You don’t do many classic story songs anymore, but you’ve got a great one with “West Memphis,” your take on the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three. Instead of it being an angry song, you’ve got one of the guys sitting in jail totally resigned to his situation, saying, “That’s the way they do things in West Memphis.”
I wasn’t really dealing with him as much as just trying to show the corruption, but it’s hard to get across completely. I was so angry at the gross injustice, and the evidence that was planted. I just couldn’t believe it. I looked at it almost like the old songs, like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” with a little mystery around it.
Last year saw the 25th anniversary reissue of your self-titled Rough Trade album, which had been your breakthrough. So many people were thrilled to see that, since it had been out of print so long. Did its reception surprise you?
It did surprise me! Because it got five-star reviews in almost every magazine, and you don’t often see that kind of reception for a reissue. But it was also kind of bittersweet for me, because I realized that five of the musicians who played on the album are gone now: John Ciambotti (bass), Donald Lindley (drums), Chris Gaffney (accordion), Juke Logan (harmonica), and the guy who played fiddle, Doug Atwell.
You produced that album with Gurf Morlix, who helped shape your sound. You and Gurf parted badly years ago. What happened there?
Gurf doesn’t speak to me anymore. Over the years, I’ve tried to approach him. He came to play L.A., and Tom and I went down to see him. I was real excited about it. I thought it was going to be this great reunion, and he hurried backstage and refused to come out. And Tom got real upset about it, and called him a “snakebellied so-and-so,” and I just stood at the bar and cried. And then later, I got an email from Gurf that said, “Lest there be any confusion about this, I just want you to know that I do not want you in my life ever again, and I just feel better with you out of my life.”
Wow! Why is he so pissed?
Well, I was trying to research it like a detective, and the only person I knew who we were both still friends with was Donald Lindley’s widow, Kathy Lindley. I emailed her and told her all about it, and she said she thinks Gurf is still angry because he didn’t get producer credit on Car Wheels…. But the problem with that is we had a falling out in the middle of making Car Wheels. We were recording with Steve Earle, and Gurf hated working with Steve. He was very uncooperative, just pouting and complaining the whole time. We all took a break from recording, and he went to his summer cabin in Canada and everybody was a lot happier without Gurf around. He never said he wanted to come back, and we didn’t ask him to come back. That was it. So if you leave in the middle of making an album, it’s ridiculous to expect to be given credit for producing it. If he had come up to me and discussed this, we could have worked something out. But he just kind of ran off and hid his head in the sand. And now he’s pissed off because the album did really well, and he feels left out or something.
I thought “Wrong Number” might be about Gurf, until I read the lines about being the guy in the song being “next of kin” and the reference to Vicksburg. Then I knew you had your estranged brother in mind.
It’s me talking about looking for someone. A lot of times, I just write about the eternal sadness that never goes away.
I’d think that a lot of siblings might be intimidated by your success, but there were years when you were scrambling, too. Like when you had a day job selling sausage.
Oh, God! That was in L.A. in the Eighties when I first moved out here. It was actually really good sausage, that gourmet kind. I had a friend whose dad was a distributor, and he would hire somebody to do demonstrations in the grocery stores. So my friend got me a gig doing that for two or three days at $75 a day. I had a table with a little skillet, and I would slice them and put a toothpick in them and offer them to people. [Laughs]
I cannot imagine you doing that.
Well, I had to do a lot of things. I preferred jobs where I could just be by myself. I worked for a house cleaning company in the early Eighties in Austin. And I used to get jobs working in offices answering the phone or filing, because I couldn’t type. One time I got fired because I wasn’t perky enough on the phone. I probably had that [sleepy] voice like you heard when I answered the phone today. [Laughs]