Lucinda Williams has been writing searing lyrics for four decades. Her songs range from introspective gems (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”), through touching ballads (“Sweet Old World”) to feminist anthems (“Passionate Kisses”).
She is an expert storyteller who speaks for the marginalised, with a rebellious streak that put her at loggerheads with the Nashville old guard. All these traits continue on her powerful new album, Good Souls Better Angels, where once again she explores the landscape of broken America.
This, the 67-year-old says, “is the first album where I have pushed some buttons that I have not pushed before”
Indeed, she deals with issues from Donald Trump to domestic abuse and social media bullying. Although it is unsettling and bleak, the album is also intensely moving
It has been co-produced by her husband, Tom Overby, and Ray Kennedy, who worked on her 1998 breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Her haunting, sandpapery drawl and the musical setting – a raw, stripped-down garage rock sound – add to the impact of tracks such as “Bad News Blues”, about being under a constant barrage from “liars and lunatics”.
Williams’s life has been remarkable. She was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana to Lucille, a pianist who struggled with mental illness, and was often in hospitals. Her father was the acclaimed poet Miller Williams.
“I was fascinated by words at a young age,” she says from her home in east Nashville. “As soon as I was able to read and write, I was writing little poems and stories.”
Her father was a confidante of presidents. He helped Jimmy Carter with his book Always a Reckoning and Other Poems – Carter thanked him for the advice to “take out some of the clichés” – and Bill Clinton picked him to read at his second inauguration in 1997.
Williams introduced his daughter to a literary world that included Flannery O’Connor, author of superb short stories such as “The Life You Save May be Your Own”.
“When we lived in Georgia, my father took me with him one time to her estate in a little town called Milledgeville,” Williams recalls. “She had peacocks running round the yard, so I just sort of played outside with them. When I was a teenager, I read all of her work and it informed my songwriting.”
Her father won custody of her after his divorce and she tells me that “they travelled a lot, sometimes living near freeways”. She remembers him telling stories about “wild and crazy parties with Charles Bukowski”, who was one of the poets who came through Arkansas when her father was running the university’s Master of Fine Arts creative writing programme. “I was exposed to a lot of things that most kids are not exposed to at such a young age, and learned to survive.”
She credits her father with teaching her about “the economy of words” and says he remained sanguine about her defiance of school authorities – she was kicked out of high school for not saying the pledge of allegiance.
“I didn’t do well in maths – that was my worst subject,” recalls Williams. “He never really got concerned at that. As long as I excelled in something, which for me would have been languages, he didn’t pressure me about getting all As or anything.” Before his death in 2015, Williams would show him new songs. “He would definitely have agreed with the sentiments” on her new record, she says.
Williams began playing gigs in her early twenties, released her first album (a set of blues covers) at 25 and won a Grammy for songwriting when Mary Chapin Carpenter covered “Passionate Kisses” in 1992, a song that contained the line “Give me what I deserve cause it’s my right”.
Yet even that success did not endear her to the conservative country music bosses of the 90s and her time then was marked by rejection and frustration. Emmylou Harris says her friend was “completely out of the country loop”.
In 1998, she made her breakthrough with Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and topped scores of critics’ polls.
She is revered by fellow songwriters and has performed with musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson and recorded a mesmerising version of Townes Van Zandt’s song Nothin’. “Isn’t that a great song? Nobody ever talks about that song,” she says. “I got to hang out with Townes but he’s not one of those guys you get to know well. Townes would get all fucked up. I have seen him fall off the stage. I think I was a little in awe of him, actually.”
Even in her seventh decade, she is still capable of causing tremors. Good Souls Better Angels is one of her most unflinching works yet .
On “Wakin’ Up”, she viscerally recounts a woman’s escape from domestic violence, singing: “He pulled my hair and then he piss on me./ Next thing I swear, he wants to kiss on me.”
The song is harrowing, and details the abuse she suffered from a recovering addict during a year-long relationship. “All the stuff in that song really happened,” she has said. Writing it got it out of her system.
The song was written before the pandemic. We talk about the rise in attacks on women at home during lockdown.
“They are stuck inside with violent men and that’s horrible,” she says with a sigh.
Now, she is in a good place, but Williams has talked in the past about her battles with anxiety and melancholy, saying, “I think it’s hard to be in this world without experiencing some kind of depression.”
Her husband and manager Overby came up with the idea for “Big Black Train”, a compelling song about mental illness. “I have a hard time singing it without tearing up a little,” she says. “A lot of people have told me that, too. It made them cry.”
The record’s most controversial track is “Man Without a Soul”, about a hateful man who hides behind a “wall of lies”.
As an adult, Williams has campaigned against injustice and in favour of liberal political candidates.
It is no secret that Donald Trump is the “man without shame”. “The song is about what he stands for,” explains Williams. “We posted a link to the song on Facebook and we got several really negative responses. One person said: ‘Well, I thought Lucinda was a compassionate person’. I guess it just says things some people can’t handle.”
The song’s final verse asks, “How do you think this story ends?”. Does she believe there will be a day of reckoning for Trump? “I think so,” she says softly. “There has to be. We had bad guys before, but not as bad as this.” It is baffling, she thinks, that the world can contain a person as wonderful as John Prine, with whom she worked in the 1990s and who recently died of Covid-19, and a man like Trump. “I think about that all the time,” she admits. “John was so funny and great.”
Williams is thoughtful and reflective. She has not left her home in more than six weeks and like all of us, she is finding ways to enjoy mundane day-to-day life amid the almost sci-fi reality of lockdown.
Lately, she’s been reading Debbie Harry’s memoir, Face It. “I was able to meet Debbie for the first time when we were in New York a short while before all this started, and she gave me a copy. It’s an honest book,” she says.
“I was always an indoor sort of kid, which is probably why I don’t have so much of a problem with being indoors now,” she says. “One thing I’m hoping comes out of this crisis is that people become more aware, not so apathetic and complacent. Americans are spoiled. They want to hide in their house in the suburbs and have their TV dinners and go to their job and come home. That is just not going to work any more. Something needs to change.”
It takes these kinds of calamities to wake people up
She has said it feels like “the world’s falling apart” and I wonder whether she is at all hopeful.
“Whenever there has been hardship through our history, including back in the Depression, a lot of great art has come out of trouble. That’s my hope for this period,” she replies.
“I am an optimist, but I like people to be awake. For some reason it takes these kind of calamities to wake people up. If that’s what it takes, then so be it.”