Lucinda Williams Talks Pushing Buttons, Covering Songs & Reading Emily Dickinson

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Lucinda Williams | The Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw | Monday, August 22, 8 p.m. | $35


Lucinda Williams’ name goes well with her music: It’s poetic, symmetrical, and associated with a stubborn set of syllables that require emphasis. It’s the same quality in his songs, which span decades and delve into love, loss and the people and places of the American South with a tattered Delta rock fervor that threw the music industry on a loop when his breakthrough album, Car wheels on a gravel roadcame out in 1998. When I called Williams on the phone a recent afternoon and she mentioned that she was 69 and trying to reach listeners who might be 29, I said with enthusiasm that she had succeeded.

But success — which Williams is so acclaimed for — doesn’t mean she’s ready to hang up her guitar. In 2020, Williams released their latest album, Good souls best angels, an edgy LP that looks contemporary issues in the eye. His latest tour follows a year-long sold-out tour Car wheels on a gravel road anniversary tour, as well as a stint on tour with Bonnie Raitt. Prior to its tour stop at the Haw River Ballroom, the INDIA spoke with Williams about Emily Dickinson, her covers, and not being afraid to push buttons.

INDIA: You just came out of a tour with Bonnie Raitt. How long have you known each other?

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: It was really good – we didn’t really know each other, but during the tour we finally got to know each other, and she’s just lovely.

I thought you would have met!

No. I know, it seems like we would have, but we never did. I mean, you know, there were a few shows that we did together but usually when you’re doing those things, you don’t talk to people a lot. But on this last tour, we did – she always went out of her way to, you know, come with me and visit me and talk a bit about everything.

You did a series of covers, Lu’s Jukebox, how did you choose the songs to cover?

Sometimes we sit around and I’m like, ‘I’d love to cover that, I want to do that song.’ I always said that about other people’s songs and Tom came up with the idea – Tom, I mentioned it before, is my husband and manager. So he picked it up. He said, “You know, we should just do some covers of the songs you always talk about and love so much.”

And then we decided to do the Livestream thing and the fans absolutely loved it. I was in front of the computer and I watched the comments arrive.

People called your last album “topical”. Does that sound right to you?

Yeah. I’ve always wanted to delve into that. These kind of songs are more difficult for me to write. I feel like, you know, there’s your basic love song – it’s always easier to write than a topical song about what’s going on in the world. I always loved, as a teenager in the 60s, listening to “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan.

How is the process different for you, writing a political song versus a love song?

Political songs are tougher because you don’t want to sound cheesy, too much like “OK, brothers and sisters, let’s hold hands and dance in a circle”.

Or too preachy.

Yeah, exactly, too preachy or too flowery. Or too naughty or gruff. It depends on who your audiences are, I guess. I sang “Masters of War” once after 9/11 and this woman was offended. But I like to push people’s buttons a bit and wake them up. And people seem to really like those songs. At the end of the shows, most of the time we sing “Rockin’ in the Free World”, things like that, and people clap and sing.

I think people need it – we’re going through tough times right now.

One hundred percent, sure. And people might not want to admit they need it because they think it’s corny or something. You’d be surprised to see my audience – it reminded me of the 60s when everybody used to sing together and have these demos and marches with everybody singing “We Shall Overcome” and stuff, there had this sense of unity and it just felt good to do that, but people got so cynical.

So I was surprised when I saw my audience doing this. At the end of “Rockin’ in the Free World”, I stood at the edge of the stage and encouraged people to join in the chorus. And they did – they loved it and jumped into it. It’s like a sea of ​​arms and hands, and it was really cool. Like the good old times.

Do you think the public is more cynical these days?

It just seems that people are more like that now. But it is better to ignore it if possible. I’m gonna stand on stage and give everybody the power sign and the peace sign and everything, I’m like, to hell with it. I like to feel like I’m helping people by going out, singing songs and talking to people. There’s a song I learned from a blues artist, “You Can’t Rule Me” – it says “You can’t take my money and try to rule me too” – it’s a song really cool. I started dedicating it to the Supreme Court of the United States, and then I did the song. Everyone loves him.

Was it before or after Roe vs. Wade decision?

Oh, afterwards.

You talked about your theme song writing process. What’s it like to write love songs?

One of the things I like to do when I write a love song or a romantic song is to make sure it will appeal to everyone, regardless of gender or whatever. I don’t know if it works or not.

I think it works. You are Lucinda Williams.

Well, well. That’s the other thing – I have a lot of fans of different races and genders who love my music, and of different ages too. That’s the other thing, is to be aware of it. Someone who is 29, how is he going to react to a song written by someone who is 69? I noticed, I was just talking about it with Tom recently, is that more young people come to see me, I have the impression. It’s a good feeling.

You explained how, in other musical and literary forms, the aging of an artist adds more dimension than irrelevance. I spit, but maybe since your music taps into those, it has more resonance for people as you get older.

Yeah, I’d like to think that, because I was inspired by all those things when I was learning to play and write songs. I was strongly inspired by poetry, jazz and blues.

Do you still read poetry, and if so, who?

Well my dad [the poet Miller Williams]. I guess I’m a little biased there. I was reading poems by Frank Stanford and realizing how awesome he was. Do you know who I really met recently, a few years ago? You would have thought it would be sooner, but, Emily Dickinson. I turned to Emily Dickinson and thought, “I get it, I get it, I get why people love her!” I fell in love with his stuff. [I love] the simplicity of it – apparently it was not formally formed, as I understand it. She was very spontaneous in her writing and she didn’t follow the rules of poetry, she just wrote how she wanted. And at first people were a bit appalled, I guess – in those days you can’t do that kind of thing. But she would do it anyway, and after a while it became her way of writing. I just thought it was really brave and rebellious and really cool.

I heard you write memoirs, is that true?

Yes I am. It’s a big business.


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