Growing up around New Orleans in the 1960s, acclaimed songwriter, Lucinda Williams, absorbed much of what was happening throughout the turbulent country. She engaged in protests in the streets for racial equality and to end the Vietnam War, among other important social statements. She listened to artist like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Her parents were academics – a creative writing professor and a music major – so Williams’ education was fostered and supported at home. At one point, she was expelled from high school for not saying the “Pledge of Allegiance.” But her father found an ACLU lawyer who fought the verdict, saying the expulsion was unconstitutional. Today, Williams says she sees many of the same divisions in the country that she did decades prior. These themes run throughout her latest LP, Good Souls Better Angels, as well as her forthcoming group of shows set to benefit American music venues in their time of need.
“I was a little radical,” Williams says. “I went to public inner-city high school, which really dealt with a lot of urban inner-city racism. There were a lot of protests around that and there was the whole anti-war thing going on. Students everywhere were protesting. The music scene back then was filled with all kinds of songs about it at the same time, too.”
Williams got her first guitar in 1965 when she was 12-years-old (the same year she heard her first Dylan record, Highway 61 Revisited). She took lessons from one of her father’s students. She learned a song a week, one at a time, simultaneously learning about music and building a repertoire of tunes. She learned how to finger pick. When she got older, she started playing gigs around New Orleans at a singer-songwriter bar on Bourbon Street and, later, she left to play in Houston and Austin in Texas. She developed her craft. She indulged in patience. She found her voice, literally and metaphorically, working within her limitations.
“I was aware of the fact from a very early age that I was never going to sound like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins,” Williams says. “Or any kind of those singers with really high, pretty voices. It used to frustrate me to no end. I just didn’t have that kind of range. But then I discovered Bobbie Gentry. She had this cool, low, smoky voice and I really identified with her.”
At first, Williams worked the bar circuit, splitting $85 in rent for a shotgun apartment with a friend. She says she never had aims at a certain type of a career, or personal or professional milestones. She just wanted to play, sing, perform, write, record – she wanted to live the life of a musician because that’s what she knew best and, well, it’s all she really knew. She’d worked as a waitress, house cleaner and clerk in bookstores and record shops. But nothing she had passion to do for a career, her life for decades.
“I often tell people,” Williams says, “that it’s a good thing this music thing worked out because I really didn’t have any other skills.”
Williams’ latest album, which she released in April, is outstanding. It’s raw, rugged. It’s what your car tire feels when it rolls over gravel. The music is sinewy, you can hear and feel and seemingly touch the connective tissue between melody and rhythm and Williams’ elastic voice. The tracks are infused with the same energy that Williams oozed when she refused to repeat the “Pledge of Allegiance” as a student.
“I still have that rebellious spirit I had a as kid in high school in the 60s,” Williams says. “I still have that. I never lost it.”
She sings about a man without a soul. She sings about old age and looming death. She sings about her own creative power. She sings about bucking ownership, breaking chains. While she was writing and recording the album, she knew it felt special. But at some point she was faced with a realization: she knew the album might not be for everyone – it might be too personal, jaggedly honest. But she knew she loved it. So, she pressed on.
“That was empowering,” she says. “Just feeling, like, you know what? This album might not be for everybody. That’s the fist time I ever felt like that and that, in itself, is empowering. It felt like it did when I walked out of my high school and joined all these protestors who were marching. I had that feeling of triumph. Like, fuck it, I’m going to put this out.”
With this same energy, the Nashville-based Williams is embarking on a new adventure this winter: Lu’s Jukebox. She is set to play a handful of shows – October 29, November 12 and 19, December 3, 17 and 31 – honoring some of her favorite musicians. The first will be centered on the music of Tom Petty in celebration of the seminal artist’s 70th birthday. The ticketed performances will also help to raise money for many struggling music venues around the country. And that the Grammy-winning songwriter can jump from expert album to live stream cover gigs is a testament to her flexibility as an artist and to what she loves most about her vocation.
“Oh god,” Williams says. “There’s so many different aspects of what I do and I enjoy different parts of each one. The first is writing a new song and the second is recording it. The third is playing on stage and singing it in front of people, expressing that song and seeing how they react.”