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On Her New Album, Lucinda Williams Is Driven, Not Comfortable

Lucinda Williams' new album, <em>The Ghosts of Highway 20</em>, shows off her Southern roots.
David McClister
Courtesy of the artist
Lucinda Williams' new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, shows off her Southern roots.

In January 1997, the poet Miller Williams stood on the steps of the Capitol at President Bill Clinton's second inauguration and read a poem he'd written about our country:

We have memorized America,

how it was born and who we have been and where.

In ceremonies and silence we say the words,

telling the stories, singing the old songs.

We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.

Williams' daughter has taken us places and told stories as an Americana singer. Her name is Lucinda Williams.

The place she takes us on her new album is the South, where as a girl she traveled around with her poet father.

"We were very close," Williams tells NPR's David Greene, "and the literary world and the music world were part of my psyche at a very young age."

She says she loved watching her dad operate. He was known for plainspoken poetry, and he socialized openly with African-Americans in a time and place where that was frowned upon. He also hung out with iconic writers like Flannery O'Connor, and was proud of his Southern roots.

"I remember him kind of not really being accepted by the New York poetry world, or what have you," she says. "It wasn't cool to be from the South back then, like it is now. ... I grew up being very aware of my Southern roots."

Lucinda Williams' dad encouraged her to write music, often editing her lyrics. Her music can be dark, feisty and full of heartbreak, and she sings from personal experience.

"I was involved with a few guys who were quite a bit younger than I was," she says. "Like, I would be 40 or 41, they would be 21. Oh, my god, isn't that shocking?! ... They didn't know how old I was. You know, they wouldn't know until later."

Williams searched for love for a long time, and she has found it. She's married to her manager, Tom Overby. At 63, she's churning out songs that critics say are up there with some of her best. And while she has seen other musicians lose their inspiration after finding happiness, she says she doesn't let herself become comfortable.

"You know, I have my moments of being comfortable, but I'm driven," she says, "and I have pain, I have sadness. And, of course, the older you get, the more loss you experience. The more loss and pain you experience, the more you need your art."

Williams recently experienced the kind of loss of which she speaks: About a year ago, her father died. In his final months, he suffered from Alzheimer's. One song on The Ghosts of Highway 20, "My Love Could Kill," addresses the disease.

"I was so angry, and so I personified the disease in this song," she says.

As Lucinda Williams searched for a way to say goodbye to her dad, she began turning his poems into music. In Arkansas, not long before his death, they gathered friends together and her dad did a reading of his poem "Compassion," which they recorded. Later, Williams herself sang a version of the poem.

She became even more determined to honor her dad's work after he told her how much the disease had taken from him. She recalls a day when her father explained that he had lost his ability to write poetry.

"I couldn't believe what I'd heard," Williams says. "And I just started sobbing and sobbing. It was as if he'd said, 'I can't see anymore.' It just shattered me."

Poetry, she says, was such a central piece of her father's identity. "That's why it's such a horrible disease," she says. "Because it kills people slowly like that. It just takes pieces of them and kills them off bit by bit by bit. And it seems to attack the most brilliant, creative minds."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.