Louisiana-born singer/songwriter revisits the past on 'The Ghosts of Highway 20'
Singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams lost her father twice in the run up to the release of her 2016 album The Ghosts of Highway 20, first to Alzheimer's disease and later, in January 2015, to death.
“That's what's so horrific about that disease,” Williams said in a late-July phone interview, recounting how the illness gradually scrubbed her father, celebrated poet Miller Williams, from existence, robbing him of his abilities (he stopped writing) and his mental faculties prior to his actual passing. “It's a long, slow death.”
On “If My Love Could Kill,” a shattered, harrowing number, Williams addresses the disease directly, singing, “If my love could kill/I would kill this slayer of wonders/Slayer of words/ … [Who] made her way into the symphony of your beautiful mind.”
Since the 2004 passing of Williams' mother, death has been a constant presence in the Louisiana native's music, owing to the role songwriting has always served, allowing her to find order in chaos and understanding amid uncertainty.
“Losing a parent changes everything. You think about it, or at least I do, nonstop. It's always in the back of my mind, and it informed my songwriting in between my mother's death and my dad's death, which were more or less 10 years apart,” said Williams, who visits the New Valley Dale Ballroom for a concert on Tuesday, Aug. 8. “I told [husband and manager] Tom [Overby] the other day, ‘I can't keep writing these songs about death,' but it's just so pervasive. I've lost so many close friends over the last 10 years or so. Right now, a really close friend of mine has terminal cancer, and I just finished a new song for her.
“That's how I deal with everything, basically. I've often said if I wasn't able to write songs and channel things that way, I don't know where I'd be. I'd definitely be in therapy. I'd have to have some other way to process it all.”
Williams has described Ghosts of Highway 20 as a spiritual successor to the career-defining Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, from 1998, noting the songs traverse many of the same Southern towns and byways that shaped her as a child, though from a more grownup perspective. “Car Wheels is more about me, the child in the back seat,” she said, “and on Ghosts of Highway 20 I'm driving the car and looking back [in the rear view mirror].”
These backwards glances surface prominently in memory-rich songs such as “Place in My Heart,” which is at least in part about Williams' estranged brother, with whom she has not spoken in nearly 15 years, though the two did exchange emails after their father died. (“I told him I loved him ... and he emailed me back one little line that said, ‘I love you, too.'”)
Recently, Williams immersed herself even deeper in the past, re-recording her 1992 album Sweet Old World in its entirety, going so far as to rewrite parts of songs and update and refresh arrangements. The musician expects the recording to surface on a 25th anniversary reissue of the album, possibly as early as September.
“I didn't know what to expect going into the studio. I was kind of hesitant, to tell you the truth … but then we got in there and it was cool,” Williams said. “‘Six Blocks Away,' to me, sounds way better. We added 12-string electric guitar and it has kind of an early Tom Petty feel now.”
Williams anticipates performing a number of Sweet Old World songs on this upcoming tour, alongside a handful of Highway 20 tunes she's yet to perform live, including the graveside lament “Death Came.” In addition, Williams worked up a full-band version of the album's title-track, which up to this point has been performed solo and acoustic. “I'm always trying to freshen things up,” she said.
In the years since Williams' father died, she has naturally invested more time considering the traits the two shared, both good (skilled with a pen, organized and imbued with a romantic idealism she credits to his Welsh/German ancestry) and less so (prone to bouts of moodiness). The current administration has also served as a reminder of their shared political ideals, which promote action over apathy.
“I mean, he would just abhor [the current political reality],” said Williams of her father, whose poem “Of History and Hope,” which he read at Bill Clinton's 1997 inauguration, describes America as a garden in need of constant tending. “I hate apathy. I'd rather someone not agree with me and have an opinion than those people who go, ‘I don't know.' What do you think about this? ‘I don't know.' Are you going to vote? ‘No. I'm not going to bother.' And that's what I kept running into year after year.
“Now [after the election of President Donald Trump] look at the difference. You have artists writing more songs about social injustice and talking about it and marching. I haven't seen the likes of this since the war in Vietnam. I'm looking at that going, great, everyone is waking up finally. In that regard, it's like a slap in the face. It's time to wake up, people.”