Interstate 20 slices through the Deep South like a blade, cutting eastwards from Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, before finally resting in South Carolina. It’s a route pitted with illustrious staging posts – Forth Worth, Shreveport, Jackson, Birmingham, Atlanta – and key historical sites from both the Civil War and the American Revolution. Most notably Kettle Creek, where British Loyalists were once booted out by a Patriot army half its size.
For Lucinda Williams, however, Interstate 20 carries a more personal significance. The daughter of poet and teaching professor Miller Williams, the peripatetic nature of her father’s job meant that she grew up in various towns that fringe the route, swapping state lines with steady regularity. If the South has always served as a fluid reference point throughout Williams’ music, rich with imagery and symbolism, this road was the fixed backdrop to her formative years. She’s already named her own label after it. Now the 62-year-old has devoted a record to this slap of tarmac, linking its stories to places along the way.
The Ghosts Of Highway 20 arrives just 16 months after Down Where The Spirit Meet The Bone, a rambling double opus that housed some of the most compelling songs of her career. Stemming from the same sessions, the new album strikes a similar musical tone at times – broody slow blues, witchy jazz cadences, a little humid country twang – but is perhaps less informed by Southern soul. Instead it’s more freely atmospheric, its textural mood set by the discreet interplay between guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz as much as the drowsy nuances of Williams’ extraordinary voice.
As with its predecessor, the album is co-produced by Williams, Leisz and Tom Overby (Williams’ other half). The heavyweight motifs haven’t changed much either: love, loyalty, salvation, mortality, resilience. But what is different is its autobiographical reach and candour. There are a lot of songs about death and memory and fortitude, her characters moving through these narratives with a resigned, stoic grace.
Some songs are almost too vivid to listen to. The nine-minute “Louisiana Story” begins with an idyllic memory of Southern childhood. Crickets tick in the warm summer stillness, ice-cream wagons trundle by, there’s a promise of sweet coffee milk. It’s not until the tale starts to unfurl, the music as languid and filmy as its Louisiana locale, that we’re given an insight into the darkness that lies beneath. The song’s subject is Williams’ mother, Lucille Day. Born to strict Methodist parents, Day Snr. was a hard-line minister. “Her daddy’s kind didn’t spare the rod/Blinded by the fear/And the wrath of God,” sings Williams in her slippery drawl. “He’d call her a sinner/Say you’re going to hell/Now finish your dinner/And tell ’em you fell.” Then we discover that “when the blood came/Her Mama told her she was unclean/And her mama would scold her.” It’s a devastating portrait of misery and castigation, compounded by Christian guilt. And one that suggests, given Lucille’s subsequent issues with depression and alcoholism (she died in 2004), that the scars never fully healed.
A similar sweltry feel pervades “If My Love Could Kill”, drummer Butch Norton beating a slow tattoo behind some muted Southern guitar. Williams rails against an invasive force that’s slowly destroying something she dearly loves, a “murderer of poets, murderer of songs”. It transpires that this is Alzheimer’s, which killed her father last January.
As you’ve probably surmised, The Ghosts Of Highway 20 is pretty tough going at times. Yet the beauty of Williams’ work lies in her rare gift for balancing content and design. “Death Came” is lightened by a lovely Western motif; the hulking guitar break on “Dust” finds an echo in the repeated urgency of Williams’ vocal; “Bitter Memory” is excised by a rousing burst of rockabilly that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Billy Lee Riley 45.
Williams closes the album with the largely improvised “Faith & Grace”, an extended plea for strength and forbearance. The implication being that, no matter what fate conspires to chuck at us, we are nothing without hope.
The Ghosts Of Highway 20 is vast, thoughtful and profound. Peopled by real and imagined souls who are haunted by sadness or seeking some kind of spiritual release. People trying to make sense of a past that never really leaves them alone; rather, it appears to only grow stronger with the passage of time. In this respect, it’s much like Lucinda Williams herself.
How symbolic is Highway 20 for you?
I grew up travelling around everywhere when I was little, so that road was a big part of my childhood. I have a strong connection to the place, plus Highway 20 is in that region of the South where a lot of the old blues guys are from. It’s part of the whole thread that runs through American music.
Was “If Love Could Kill” a difficult song to write?
Yes, I wrote that about the Alzheimer’s that killed my dad. The initial inspiration came during one of the last times I was with him. He suddenly said, “I can’t write poetry anymore.” For him, it was like saying he could no longer walk or see. I just broke down and started sobbing. Sorry, I’m going to start crying again. [Pause] Anyway, later that night I wrote this ode to him that said it doesn’t matter if you can’t write anymore, because you (i)are(i) poetry.
I’m guessing that “Louisiana Story”, about your mum, was another emotional one…
This whole album might be too intense for people. When I finished that song I said to Tom [Overby, Williams’ husband]: “This one is so dark that I don’t know if we should put it out.” But I’m an artist first and foremost. I’m not an entertainer. I’ve always loved Leonard Cohen; he was a poet first, then a songwriter. He didn’t censor himself. Thinking about it, I’m probably more like a female version of him.
INTERVIEW: ROB HUGHES
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