For the first time in her decades-long career, uncompromising Americana archetype Lucinda Williams has released a double-studio album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.
She’s doing it because she can now that she has her very own label and because she faced an embarrassment of riches — 23 stick-to-your-ribs, humidly grooving country-soul numbers, plus the dozen-or-so others she’s still hanging onto.
Williams has never found a more fitting album title than this. There are songs here that express fierce self-preservation instincts and convey Southern-accented social consciousness and luxuriate in sensuality.
There’s even one called “Compassion” that adapts a poem by her father Miller Williams, who’s been as singular a voice in his field — with his scientific descriptions, searching mind and dark sense of humor — as she is in hers. In fact, that poem gave the album its name.
CMT Edge: I saw you perform at the Rock My Soul gospel show during Americana Fest. You’ve used religious imagery and language in some pretty nontraditional ways in your songwriting. What was it like to perform your song “Get Right With God” in a church with the historical a cappella gospel group the Fairfield Four accompanying you?
Williams: It was great. … I felt real honored, because it is one of my songs, to be able to do it in that setting and to be able to work with real gospel singers like the Fairfield Four. All of them were just so nice and sweet, and they just welcomed me and made me feel really comfortable. … I felt like I found some new friends, you know? Like, I wanted to stay in touch with them, and I wanted to do some more things with them musically because that went so well.
It was kind of like you met each other in the middle.
I thought they really embraced it and got into it. I mean, I’d never done it like that before. I’ve only done it with just regular rock musicians. I was just over the moon. I just really was thrilled with the whole thing.
Last year, you closed Americana Fest by celebrating the 25th anniversary of your album on Rough Trade Records, performing it top to bottom. And in 2009 you did some 30th anniversary chronological retrospective shows. But you’ve also been in the most prolific period of your songwriting career. Sometimes looking back can work against the impulse to create new work. Why do you think it’s led to so much output instead?
I’ve been trying to figure that out because everybody’s asking me that lately. I guess it’s just kind of a combination of things. In a way, going back and looking at some of that earlier stuff opened up some ideas. I kinda went back to that simpler mode of writing.
And I’m even thinking about some songs that I wrote a long time ago, like, before the Rough Trade album and all that. I still have tapes of all these old songs. But going back and realizing, “A lot of people like that song, and it’s so simple” — kind of getting back in touch with that part of my songwriting and realizing that that style is still OK.
The leanness of the lyric writing on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone struck me as coming from a blues place. You might repeat the same phrase or a variation on it but dig in with feeling vocally.
Yeah. That’s another thing. I started learning how to use my voice kind of to carry the song. My voice started getting better, I feel like. I’ve developed more as a singer separately from being a songwriter. That’s something that’s come about as the years have gone on, and I’ve just gotten more experience with everything.
A lot of artists, as they get older, find it more difficult to connect for young fans or new fans, and I haven’t seen that happen with you at all. It seems like successive generations of roots-minded college students continue to get into your music.
Oh, yeah. I have kids coming. Well, I call ‘em kids. They’re in their 20s — whose parents first brought them to see me when they were little kids. The parents are still coming, and now the kids are grown and the kids are coming. It’s a good feeling to see that. The last thing I want is just a bunch of middle-aged people coming out. (laughs)
There’s a line in your new song “Foolishness” that caught my ear: “What I do on my own time/Is none of your business and all of mine.” It sets a very clear boundary. On the other hand, you and your husband Tom got married onstage so your fans could share in the event with you. How do you navigate the boundaries between private and public spheres. What feels right to put there, and what doesn’t?
I think my songs are pretty [open]. I certainly don’t censor myself. That’s one of the things I learned from my dad as a writer. He always said, “Never censor yourself. That’s one of the rules.” … I respect my fans, and they respect me. For the most part, the boundaries are understood, it seems like. I haven’t had to really struggle with that, other than the avid fan who wants to talk a lot or something.
Which is a pretty mild issue in the scheme of things.
Yeah. I guess I’ve been fortunate in that regard. Maybe it’s because they feel like they’re getting so much already from my songs. I’m kind of baring my soul as-is.
That must have been a big deal for you to translate one of your dad’s poems into song form for the first time. I read that he’d had to stop writing because of Alzheimer’s. I wondered if that made you to want to extend the life of his work in song.
Yes, absolutely. You’re the first person who’s brought that up and made that connection. And not everybody knows.
I’ve mentioned in the press, I guess, a couple of times about when my dad told me he couldn’t write poetry anymore. I just broke down. We were visiting in Fayetteville, just having wine and talking. My dad just almost matter-of-factly said, “I can’t write poetry anymore.”
And I went, “What? What did you just say?” And I just lost it and started crying. It was just traumatic to hear that. It was like somebody saying they couldn’t see anymore or something. It was such a part of him.
So there was that. And I wanted it to be sort of a tribute to my dad. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
Some songwriters seem to grow more jaded as they accumulate life experience. Your songwriting has actually gotten more idealistic in the last decade. Why do you think that is?
I’m just exploring different things to write about besides unrequited love. Kind of moving away from the basic love song thing, which I think are the easiest kinds of songs to write. I’ve never been jaded or cynical, and I never will be. That’s just the kind of person I am. … You can’t keep writing sad love songs for the rest of your life, otherwise you’ll constantly be lonely and by yourself.
Once you get into a good, stable kind of relationship, a lot of people just quit writing altogether when that happens. I wasn’t gonna let that happen.