In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Delivered in her distinctive, graveled drawl, Lucinda Williams has spent the better part of the last 30 years telling stories through her music. Heartbreak, loss, anger, love, and fear—Williams’ more prevalent themes might otherwise pitfall into redundancy were it not for the unsettling earnestness poured into every song. The 63-year-old multi-Grammy Award winner and Louisiana native confronts those topics with equal parts vulnerability and fearlessness. On the heels of her most recent release with this month’s This Ghosts Of Highway 20, we talked to Williams about the familiar thematic thread of her music and how those stories continue to change over time.
The A.V. Club: This is one of your most autobiographical songs in a catalog that’s largely informed by your personal experiences. Did you see that sort of vulnerability while writing it?
Lucinda Williams: “Ghosts Of Highway 20” was actually the last song I wrote for this album. I played in Macon, Georgia, a couple of years ago at the old Cox Capitol Theatre. I started school there way back when, and that’s on Highway 20, of course. But we played there and on the way out of town, and I was looking out the window of the bus, and I kept seeing all these exit signs for all these other towns. Places like Monroe and Atlanta, or Vicksburg, where my brother was born, or Jackson, where my sister was born. My mother lived in Monroe, but she grew up all over Louisiana. Then she was finally buried in Monroe, in the family plot. But I started school in Macon, so there was this whole connection, and that was kind of the seed behind that song.
Once we’d pretty much had all the songs together from that initial recording session, Tom and I started talking about Highway 20 becoming the name of the label. I wanted to call it something like Gravel Road Records, but we couldn’t use it because someone else had taken it already. [Laughs.] But I was just thinking about the whole theme, and traveling is something that’s always interested me. Traveling down the highway is basically the whole layout and history of the United States when you think about all the novels and songs. There’s so much that’s been written about traveling by people like Woody Guthrie, the hobos on the trains, Kerouac’s On The Road, Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway.”
When I was growing up I moved around a lot. Both of my grandfathers were Methodist ministers, so my mother moved around a lot because back then, you preached a year or two, and then they’d send you somewhere else. It was the same thing with my dad, because he was a teacher. He would teach at a college for a year or two and then have to go somewhere else until he achieved tenure at the University Of Arkansas in 1971. But from the time I was born until 1971, we lived for a year or two here or a year or two there all over the South. That was in my blood, so I’ve always been drawn to songs about traveling. I’ll have people come up to me and say, “Whenever you write a song, it’s about a person in a town,” and I’m like, “Well, yeah. It makes it more interesting.” Writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty really drew me in because they did the same thing with their short stories.
That’s really how everything came together, and once the record was done, Tom [Overby, her husband] and I started talking about writing a song around Highway 20 and the whole idea of the connection there. He asked if I’d be able to do it, and I said, “Well, I’ll try, but I’m not sure I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said,” because I’ve already written so many songs about the South and my childhood and things like that. I keep bits and pieces of stuff I’ve written over the years; I don’t throw anything out until I’ve used it in a song. But I wasn’t sure what to say so as not to repeat myself.
After a few days, I had kind of a handle on it, and it was almost like I felt it was a “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road,” part two. [Laughs.] Now this is me older and looking back and seeing it through different eyes. I’ve lost more since then. I lost my mother. I lost my father. In a sense I’ve lost my brother because for whatever reason, he’s decided to estrange himself from the family, and I haven’t seen him or talked to him in 10 years. So honestly, with this album, I just went in and dug in a little deeper than where I was at the last point. They’re stories that I’ve told before, but here they are again after all these years from a slightly different perspective. The well never really runs dry for me. All I have to do is reach down and draw from it.
There’ll always be something to write about. I mean, a) I’m from the South, b) my father was a poet, c) my mother was a musician, although she wasn’t able to pursue it in her life professionally because of mental illness, which is something she struggled with her entire adult life. It’s something that didn’t really show itself until her and my father got married, and my mother was from that era where nobody talked about depression or mental illness. That was the backdrop when I was growing up. Fortunately I was able to bond with my dad, and I can still hear him say, “If something were to happen with your mother, it’s not her fault. She’s not well.” I mean, if that doesn’t give you enough material to go on for a long while… [Laughs.]
When I was younger, I was able to fill up most of my writing time with unrequited love songs and that kind of thing. But at a certain point when I got older and met Tom and realized he was my soul mate, people had the audacity to ask me in interviews if I was still gonna be able to write songs now that I was in that relationship. When I put out the Blessed album it was like me saying, “See?” Now they’re going, “Yeah, okay.” [Laughs.] It was challenging, yeah, but it was something I’d always wanted to pursue as a songwriter anyway, following in the footsteps of artists like Bob Dylan who would read articles in the newspaper and then write a song about what happened. When I got to that point in my creative life, it was challenging, but it was also liberating in a way, because it forced me to look at different things to write about.
LW: This is one of those songs from that era that we play on a regular basis when we play live. The way we’re playing it live now, it’s grown into something much stronger because my voice is better now than it’s ever been. When I play songs like that, I don’t even think about the arrangement on the album or anything. We’re just playing it like it’s a new, fresh song, and the audience loves it because they’re familiar with it. But it’s one of those songs that’s really just stood the test of time. For a long time I used to think “I need to write another song like ‘Changed The Locks,’” because it’s just such a good rock song, like something Tom Petty would write. I don’t know how I managed to come up with that kind of song when I did, but it’s just one of those that kind of grew into that. I write everything by myself on acoustic guitar, so a lot of them really take shape once I get in the studio with the band and everything.
LW: With this song, when I sing it I ask myself if I have to go back to that place. Am I able to do that? And my answer is yes. It was one of the first songs where I wrote about suicide, and the whole idea and shock of it. People responded in a lot of different ways, but the majority said things like, “This song helped me get through this,” or “My brother committed suicide. Thank you for writing this song.”
AVC: It’s not an easy topic to cover without coming off as flippant or completely sentimental—two things you manage to avoid despite the fact that you have revisited the subject more than once.
LW: Exactly, and for me it’s like the experiences I’ve had firsthand really demand an honesty. That kind of full disclosure and reality is something the audience connects to so strongly, especially with this one. People’s responses were incredible. One time I was singing on a radio show, and this woman called in later and said, “I heard that song, and it made me change my mind. I was thinking about ending it all.” It’s just had such a profound impact on people. I still love singing it and performing it, and I honestly think it’s one of my strongest pieces of work.
LW: It almost brought me to tears one night when we were doing that song in— I think it was Charleston, South Carolina. Mary Chapin Carpenter had a place there, and she came to the show, and I knew she was in the audience. I said, “This is a song that my friend Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded on her album, and it opened a big door for me because it led to me winning a Grammy for Country Song Of The Year, which neither I nor anyone else thought was a remote possibility.” [Laughs.]
When she put it out on her album Come On Come On, she wanted it to be the first single, and her label said no, because it wasn’t country enough. At the time they were marketing her as a country artist out of Nashville, and she said the hell with that and stood her ground. She had enough leverage at the time that they finally said okay, and it became the first single off her album and won me the Grammy. I’d just moved to Nashville at that point, so even now when I sing it—and I go out by myself when I do it, which makes it even more profound—as soon as I hit the first line of the song, everybody breaks out in applause. I always get a little choked up when I talk about it, because I was so young and more naïve then, and Mary was already a star, really. It was my first Grammy, and it just really started everything for me. [Laughs.] When I get to the line “It’s my right,” all the women in the audience yell out and go nuts. I love it.
LW: I’ll always love singing this song. It’s one of those where I do it in a more stripped-down way where it’s just me and Stuart Mathis on his guitar. It’s another one of those where as soon as I start playing it, people know which one it is, and they start clapping. My fans have followed me along throughout the years, and I have such a loyal fanbase. When we do the sets now, we reserve a few songs in between that I get to do by myself, or I bring Stuart out and he does it with me. Everything quiets down. Another one is “Lake Charles,” which is just Stuart and me. There are certain ones where the audience has that connection with those songs. They really lend themselves to very sparse arrangements like that, so it just makes them more special.
LW: “Changed The Locks” is one we do at the end of the night with the whole band and Stuart doing those incredible guitar solos. At that point of the night we’ve got everybody whipped up into a frenzy.
AVC: To sort of offset the more heart-wrenching songs, which is basically what we’ve covered so far.
LW: Right! [Laughs.] Pretty much every show we do now, though, includes “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles.” Those two songs, we do every night, and it might seem old after a while, but we get requests for them. I still love doing them, but “Drunken Angel” is one of those songs that finds its way into the set night after night no matter where we’re playing. We could be in Oslo, Norway, or Salt Lake City or wherever, and it’s gonna be one of those. It’s almost become like an anthem. Everybody loves that song and responds to it.
I’ve met younger fans, these girls, and they have tattoos on them that say “Drunken Angel.” One girl got me to write it on her back, so she could go get it tattooed. [Laughs.] Another girl in Nashville had a tattoo of it on her arm. I mean, that song and the whole idea of it, it’s gone beyond the story of Blaze Foley. I tell the story sometimes about Blaze Foley being this tall, big-hearted guy who liked to drink. He’d get all drunk and fucked up, and he gets in the middle of this senseless argument and gets shot and killed. One of his mentors was Townes Van Zandt who was pretty much the same guy, and now he’s gone, too. I’ll tell people that the song has become something now that could be about Townes or Gram Parsons or Kurt Cobain or any artist who’s died too young and given up the ghost. People respond to that.
LW: I’ve kind of been surprised at the popularity of this song. Again you’ve got a story about a guy who took his own life, and you would think at this point that people are getting tired of hearing my songs about suicide. [Laughs.] Or just death in general and people dying needlessly, but it’s something I do. I write songs about those things to help me deal with it. It’s like when Vic Chesnutt took his own life. We’d done some shows together over the years, and apparently besides his illness where he was trying to get this medication, and he couldn’t because he didn’t have health insurance, but he was struggling with depression. I was frustrated at him in a way, but I also understood—that mixture of empathy and anger, all of which people feel when somebody takes their own life or fucks up and overdoses. You wanna ask, “Why did you do this? Why didn’t you ask me for help? Why, why, why?”
A few months after Vic, Mark Linkous is in the middle of a session and goes out and kills himself. Apparently he and Vic had become really close friends, and they both looked up to each other so much. He’d been in a motorcycle accident that messed up his leg, and of course Vic was in a wheelchair, but the two of them connected partly because of that. I didn’t know Mark, but it was tragic and ironic that both of those were such a horrible series of consequences. I’d already written “Seeing Black” when Mark Linkous took his own life, and my friend who’d been on the road with us doing guitar tech work, Dewitt Burton who lives in Athens, was friends with Mark and was in the studio when it happened.
AVC: The songs you’ve written about suicide, are they all concerning specific people and experiences from your own life?
LW: A lot of times when I write, you know, it’s not just about a particular person. That will spark the idea. Another guy I’d known for years who was a fantastic musician and played with me out in L.A. in the ’80s, Michael Bannister. He’d moved away to Sedona out in the desert, gotten married and had a kid and hung out with this American Indian band. He got a divorce, his kid grew up, and Michael moved back to L.A. and wanted to jump back into the music scene, which is usually not that good an idea. Once you’re in it, and then you leave and try to come back, it doesn’t take. But he came back to L.A. and asked me to help, and I spent all this time putting out this email blast telling everyone I knew that Michael was an amazing musician and was back in L.A. I saw him at a party in September of that year, and then in October I get this email from somebody saying that Michael had taken his own life. I just remember being like, goddamn. I mean, fuck. Why? But there comes the song, and it’s also turned into this pretty driving, intense song when we play it live. We’ve got a really great arrangement of it, and we do it quite a bit now, but it’s become one of those songs, again, that I get more and more requests for now.
LW: This song was written by Randy Weeks, who was part of that whole cowpunk scene in L.A. back in the ’80s. They were like a Blazing Saddles meets absurdity with guitar, bass, and drums. They played all over L.A. back then, and I used to open shows for them. They had a couple of records on the Hi-Tone label, and at some point they split up and went their own separate ways. Randy’s living in Austin now and writing and doing his own thing, and is a fantastic musician in his own right. But at some point he sent me a demo of his own songs, and this song was on there. His version of it is almost a rockabilly sort of sped-up thing, but I adapted it and put myself into it, and people really loved it.
LW: I wrote this song with my brother in mind. I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in years, but I still adore him and love him and care about him. I reached out, but it’s just one of those things. I’ve written at least three, maybe four songs with him in mind. This one, though, really grabs people. I had one girl in the audience sitting and crying like a baby when we played this, because she had a similar relationship with her own brother. There’s so many different stories like that. We had this guy at one of our shows who was a Vietnam vet, and he sent a letter backstage explaining that he went to his buddy’s grave who’d served in Vietnam with him, and this guy learned the song on guitar. He said, “I worked that song up. I learned to play ‘Are You Alright?’ and went to my buddy’s graveside and played the song for him.” For him, it took on a whole different meaning, and that’s the beauty of it. Everybody has their own different stories that they’ll connect to these songs, and it’s really something special.