A few years ago Lucinda Williams’ tour bus pulled out of Macon, Georgia, after a show at the Cobb Theatre and then turned west from Atlanta. As she looked out the window watching Interstate 20’s bright green exit signs flash past against the black sky, it was as if she saw the ghosts of her past, pale and translucent, walking along the highway shoulder.
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Much of her life has been strung out along that east-west corridor through the old Confederacy. Macon was where she first went to elementary school and first heard the blues. Her sister Karyn was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and her brother Robert in Vicksburg, Mississippi; their mother Lucille is buried in Monroe, Louisiana. Lucinda’s father, the poet Miller Williams, taught writing at colleges in Macon, Jackson, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In her mid-20s, Lucinda lived in Austin.
When she mentioned all this to her husband Tom Overby, he suggested that she write a song called “The Ghosts of Highway 20.” Until she got her arms around those ghosts, he suggested, they would continue to haunt her. Ever so reluctantly she agreed. “Writing to assignment is really hard,” she says, “but it’s good discipline, so I’m trying to do it more. Finally something clicked and I said, ‘Okay I’ve got it.’”
The result became the title song of her new album, The Ghosts Of Highway 20, her second consecutive two-CD set, following 2014’s Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. “I know this road like the back of my hand,” Williams sings in a raspy alto in the wake of a shimmering graveyard chord from guitarist Greg Leisz, “same with the stations on the FM band, farms and truck stops, firework stands … rundown motels and faded billboards, used cars for sale, rusty junkyards.”
Here is the sharply focused visual imagery of her early songwriting, something she downplayed in the terse, secular hymns of her middle career. In this song, the listener can easily picture those truck stops and junkyards where she “went to hell when I was younger,” as she sings, “deep in the well to feed my hunger.” She has left behind parents, lovers and friends, she adds, but now it’s time “to wrestle with the ghosts of Highway 20.” These wraiths are Southerners and they would have to be grappled with on Southern ground.
“I’m a Southerner too,” she says over the phone from her home in Nashville. “I grew up in the South. All the great music really started in the South. You hear people say that we love to talk and tell stories; I’m not sure that’s a Southern thing so much as a rural thing. My grandfather on my dad’s side was involved in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, the struggle to get sharecroppers a better life, one of the first biracial movements. The songs came out of that struggle, often from black people and poor whites; there was a connection between them.
“Going out to the bars on Saturday night and to church on Sunday morning: that does seem to have its roots in the South. You see that in the writings of Flannery O’Connor; the spiritual and the carnal come closer together in the South than maybe anywhere else. To me the epitome of that is her book Wise Blood and the movie by John Huston. That whole thing about spirituality, guilt and sex is all in there. Hazel Motes basically loses his mind at the end of the movie. He puts glass in his shoes and wraps himself in barbed wire.”
On her sprawling new album, Lucinda explores these repeated collisions of Saturday night carnality and Sunday morning spirituality in a series of alternating blues and gospel numbers. Because she’s skeptical of conventional gender roles, her blues look past drunken, one-night stands to long-term consequences. Because she’s wary of organized religion, the hymns are short on doctrinal answers and long on difficult questions.
Because the songs are trying to unlock the past and reveal its secrets, they are sung at a distance from the action. The songs’ narrators are not in the midst of a drinking crowd nor a testifying congregation but rather alone on a tour bus, in the post-midnight dark, interrogating the ghosts on the other side of the window. The music has a reluctant, spectral quality, given a shadowy film-noir atmosphere by guitarists Leisz and Bill Frisell.
In many ways, Lucinda’s career began, like her fateful bus ride, in Macon. “That was where I learned to read and write,” she says, “and as soon as I did, I began to write little stories. When I was five, my dad took me to Milledgeville to visit Flannery O’Connor, who was his favorite writer and his mentor. She lived in this big Southern farmhouse, and she had a black woman who helped take care of her.
“When we got there, her aide came to the door and said, ‘Miss Flannery isn’t ready to receive you yet, because she’s still writing.’ She had a schedule where she wrote from eight in the morning till three in the afternoon. We waited on the front porch till she came out on her crutches, because she was already struggling with her illness. My dad went inside, and I chased the peacocks around the yard.”