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Cover Story: Lucinda Williams

| April 29, 2020

Many artists — when looking back on their catalogs — often wish that they could have done better, compositionally speaking. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But when Grammy-winning folk-rocker Lucinda Williams undertook her comprehensive tour last year, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her landmark third Car Wheels on a Gravel Road effort, she never once reflected on the work with anything but fondness. Twangy anthems like “Drunken Angel,” “Right in Time,” “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” and the loping title track, she assays, “Are still really good songs. So I was probably thinking the opposite — looking back on some of ‘em and thinking, ‘Damn! I need to write something like that again!’” Mission accomplished. The Louisiana-born singer’s latest disc, Good Souls Better Angels — co-produced by Ray Kennedy and her husband/manager of eleven years, Tom Overby — is a venomous, feral-fanged scorcher, and a clear-eyed commentary on our crumbling, climate-change-denying society, which has quite possibly doomed itself to extinction.

Inflamed by the callous, tone-deaf Trump administration — whose every stealthy boardroom move seems to have been anti-humanity — a snarling, gravel-drawled Williams tears flesh from corrupted bone in the bluesy indictments of “Shadows and Doubts,” “Big Black Train,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” and the self-explanatory lead single, “Man Without a Soul,” which she co-wrote with her spouse. On the chugging “Bone of Contention,” she curses naysayers with “Evil bastards — go back to your grave,” while “Man” rhetorically inquires, “Evil villain without dignity and grace/ How do you think this story ends?” Only on the chipper country-rocking “When the Way Gets Dark” does she shine some lyrical light into the cloudy sundown, and it resounds through “Souls” like a call to arms: “Don’t give up/ You have a reason to carry on.” It’s a defiant, resolutely focused achievement — written pre-coronavirus pandemic — that’s just what the doctor ordered for these turbulent times. It will stand in her already-impressive career with the same zeitgeist-encompassing gravity as Springsteen’s post-9/11 treatise “The Rising” did back in 2002.  “Some of **Car Wheels was more narrative and personal and all,” notes Williams, 67, who also was so inspired by the script for Liz Garbus’ new missing-children film **Lost Girls that she penned the song “Lost Girl” expressly for the project. “But with this one? I was just in a certain mood.”

ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER: Do you wish that there was a Quinn Martin clause** in your contract so that you can add one of their traditional “epilogs” (sic) as a dark coronavirus postscript?

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Ha. Yeah, it’s almost Biblical, you know? Tom and I were talking about it a little while ago while we were making coffee, and he was joking — and we joke and laugh, but it’s not funny anymore —he was joking, “Well, we’ve got a plague now….” We’re in Nashville right now, so we’ve got the tornadoes. And I said, “What’s next? The locusts? It’s just surreal. And then you add in the whole political climate, and it’s all just unprecedented. 

IE: Green Day just released a tremendous social-commentary album called Father of All Motherfuckers. You can guess the reference.

LW:  Ha! I know! You HAVE to. I’m just relieved that I have this outlet, you know? People have been asking me, “Well, what made you decide to write these kinds of songs right now?” And I’m like, ‘Come on!” I grew up listening to Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, and I always wanted to write those kinds of songs. And a lot of the rock bands, too — everybody back then was writing songs about what was going on, and nobody said that then. I still can’t people are saying that about it now. If we’re doing this kind of music — folk-rock or whatever you want to call it — to me, it’s all about being pissed off. Everybody’s mad. We’re all mad and frustrated. And I’m an artist, first and foremost, so what is art for if it’s not for self-expression? I mean, maybe if it was a different style of music, like Frank Sinatra in Vegas or something. Which is all fine and good — I love Frank Sinatra. But that’s not what I’m doing, you know? See, this is the problem — people just get so complacent. That’s why we’re in this mess right now. Get pissed off! Express yourself!

IE: Was there one annoying incident that first the match to this powderkeg?

LW:  Maybe one of the first songs was “You Can’t Rule Me.” I actually adapted that from a Memphis Minnie song of the same title, and she was writing about her man, you can’t rule ME and all this. But I took it and put different lyrics in and kind of put a different spin on it, and added some other stuff to fit. I’ve been trying to write some songs like this over the last few years. Back when I was writing the songs for Blessed, that’s when it really first started, and it’s all tied together with meeting Tom and finding my soulmate and getting engaged. Now here’s another insane thing. When all that was going down, when the Little Honey album was coming out, I’m doing press for that, and these are the kinds of questions I was being asked — ‘Do you think that you’ll still be able to write songs now that you’re in this relationship?’ And I’m dumbfounded and trying to figure out a way to respond, and it’s pissing me off. And I’m going, “What? I’m an artist! I’m not gonna die. My arts not gonna die because I’m in a relationship with someone, I’m gonna be with him for the rest of my life. But you’re actually asking me if I’ll still gonna be able to write?” So that was happening, and I’m thinking, “You know what? I’m gonna have to try and write songs about something besides unrequited love.” Which I’d wanted to do anyway because I always wanted to do what Bob Dylan used to do — just read an article in a paper and write a song about it, like “Hurricane.” I always wanted to be able to do that, to get outside myself a little bit. So all of this was happening at the same time, and it really pissed me off. So I was like, “I want to start writing about different things. So I AM gonna start writing about different things.” So I was being challenged, in a way, because people were like, “Oh, is she sill gonna be able to write good songs now that she’s in this committed relationship?” They were falling for that myth, that a relationship is gonna kill your art. And I have seen it happen with other artists — they make two or three great albums, and then they don’t do the same anymore.

I don’t know why that happens with other people, but it wasn’t going to happen to me. So that’s where it started with me, and when you go back to the Blessed album, you can see that it was beginning to happen with songs like “Soldier’s Song,” which, to me, is an anti-war song. And it kind of grew from there. And at the same time, the political climate is getting worse and worse, so I was getting more frustrated and angrier — as we all are — so it was just a natural transition. Like I said, I’d always been an admirer of great topical songs. And they’re not easy to write — otherwise, I would have been doing it before. An unrequited love song is much easier to write.

IE:  Over the past few years, it’s easy to wonder if there is indeed an honest man left on Earth. But your song sums it up best — “Man Without a Soul.” Trump, of course.

LW:  I know. Everybody’s responding to that. We all need this right now. And other artists need to step up to the plate. And I see some of ‘em doing it — that’s one of the good things that’s come out of all this. I’ve started seeing people addressing those issues through their music. Like, it wasn’t cool for a while, remember? But remember back when there were political songs like “Ohio”? It felt so good back then, to feel that feeling of ‘We’re all in this together.’ Otherwise, it’s just complacency. So I’m fighting back the only way I know how right now. We haven’t toured yet because you can’t get out of the house, so we had to cancel all of our stuff through May. But that’s the best way I can do it by speaking out through my music. My grandparents on my dad’s side were social democrats. That’s what my grandfather called himself because he was invited into the Southern tenant farmer’s union struggle. But now you can’t even say the phrase ‘social democrat’ without offending someone. People are so ignorant; they’re not educated enough to know the difference. Everybody on my dad’s side was a progressive thinker. But now, all of a sudden, a couple of cousins on that side of the family have turned around and joined the other side. And I’m like, “Oh, my God! Our grandfather must be rolling over in his grave!” One of ‘em was on FaceBook and wrote, “I’m working at the bakery at Wal-Mart, and I’m risking my life to go work there. But does anyone care about what I’m doing?” And she ended it by saying, “Trump cares what I’m doing. He cares about me. But do YOU care about me?” And I try to stay out of these things on FaceBook, but I had to respond and say, “With all due respect, what makes you think that Trump cares about you?” But there’s no having a logical, rational conversation with people like that. They’re so brainwashed. Even people watching the debates — are they really going to decide who to vote for just by watching the debate? But maybe with this pandemic, things might finally change. And I still trust some news sources. But you just have to use common sense. Whatever happened to underground news? Remember that? Remember when we had those kinds of publications that really did tell the truth? 

IE: It feels like you’ve been listening to a lot of Gospel for this album.

LW: Yeah! Because it feels good. The old stuff, the Gospel-blues stuff, and all that. And that’s kind of what I was doing with that song at the end of the album, “Good Souls.” It has that ‘Everything’s gonna be okay’ kind of feeling. And regardless of organized religion or any of that, there are other things at work here. Because I get asked this a lot — Am I religious? Because I use a lot of biblical — for lack of a better word — imagery, like the devil. But it’s kind of like in blues music, where there’s a lot of that, as well. Nick Cave does that a lot, and of course Bob Dylan — “God said to Abraham ‘Kill me a son’/ And Abe said ‘Man, you’ve gotta be putting me on.” And of course, there’s Leonard Cohen.

IE: “I’ve seen the future, baby/ It is murder.”

LW: Yeah. Both of my grandfathers were Methodist ministers, so I’ve got that way down in there, too. But my father’s father — the one I was telling you about — was a Christian in the truest sense of the word. He left the church because of the inherent racism and other things — he was very progressive. So I grew up with that whole social democrat thing, and I’m watching Bernie Sanders, and I think that he’s a social democrat, just like my grandfather was. So that’s nothing new. And I remember my grandmother on my father’s side walking around the house and humming hymns — those beautiful old Protestant hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross.” And my dad remembered ‘em and would sing ‘em sometimes, too. So it’s all in there. But the thing that I find really fascinating is the art of Sante Ria and the Latin Catholic imagery — Jesus on the cross, Mother Mary and all that. I’ve got this collection of art from that, and I’ve started collecting crosses. It’s just a certain thing that really pulls me in — it’s fascinating, but it’s hard to explain to people. I remember one time, this journalist doing an interview came into my apartment, and he sees all these crosses on the wall and goes, “oh, are you Catholic?” And I said, “uhh, no I’m not Catholic.” People just don’t get it. My father was pulled away from the Protestant church, and he referred to himself as an agnostic when I was growing up. So it’s all mixed in.

IE: So when was the last time you attended church?

LW:  The last time I went inside a church was when Tom’s father died, and we went to the service for that. It was a Catholic service, and I was actually kind of fascinated with the whole thing. The ceremony goes on for a couple of days. At first, they have the body in the casket, open viewing, and that sort of threw me off a little bit. They have a visitation, and you can walk right up to the casket and see the person lying there. And then the next day is the actual burial. 

IE: Your voice undergoes an interesting transformation on this record. You almost sound like a wounded animal, tracked to its den, and shot at until it’s finally ready to come out snarling.

LW:  Wow! That’s awesome! I love that. You’re familiar with Jesse Malin, right? We were in New York City, helping him do shows for his album, and we had the masters for my new album. So Jesse helped us put together a listening party at one of the bars he owns, Niagara, and we had it turned up really loud. And Jesse turned to me and goes, “Your album is like a cross between Iggy Pop and Howlin’ Wolf.” And I was like, “Oh, my God — I love you!” Because that’s exactly how I wanted it to be, exactly what I wanted. And Jesse comes from that whole punk background, so I thought, “Wow! I’ve got the stamp of approval!”

IE: But you also say “Don’t Give Up.”

LW:  I’m an optimist at the end of the day. It’s like those old songs again — “We Shall Overcome” and all that. We can’t let the bastards get us down. But there are so many movies about what we’re going through, like Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman. And I keep using the phrase ‘Orwellian,’ but it’s all coming true. We’re living the nightmare. It’s like Mother Earth saying, “Okay, you guys have fucked up long enough. I’m gonna put you in detention, and you’re not coming out of it for a while. I’m gonna send the plague, and you’re gonna be quarantined while you sit there and ponder all the things you’ve done.” But the one thing about this is, it is kind of like a pestilence. Like roaches — they don’t discriminate, no matter how much money you have or who you are. Right now, it’s everybody. So there’s gotta be something good that comes out of all this. 

IE: So you have been writing your Quinn-Martin epilog (sic)?

LW: Yeah. Stuff is staying inside my brain, but I’m still kind of in a state of denial. I keep thinking, “Okay, any day now…” But, I keep vacillating between “This is gonna be over in a few days” to “What if this lasts the rest of the year?” And of course, I’m reading stuff online and looking up all this relevant information. So I’m getting bombarded right now. I need to kind of turn it off, but it’s hard to do because I subscribe to all these things like The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and all this stuff. 

IE: And social media isn’t helping much, right?

LW:  I refuse to have a conversation with anyone who’s not well-informed these days. And people say, “Oh, we can agree to disagree.” No. Not this time. Forget about that, that’s bullshit, I’m not having a conversation with an idiot. Just get out of my life, and I never want to see you or speak to you ever again. So you’d better decide what side you’re on. It’s gotten to that point right now.

Tom Lanham

** Quinn Martin was a successful TV producer from 1959-1987. Some of His series, such as The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, The Fugitive, and The Invaders, featured episodes that were structured into four “acts” and an “epilogue.” Each act was labeled at the start of each segment with the show title and the act number, and the “epilog” (intentionally spelled wrong) near the end of the program. –Wikipedia

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