Disciples and critics have spent the last four decades and more trying to find the right metaphor for Lucinda Williams’ distinctive vocal style. One admiring Daily Telegraph reviewer first likened it to ‘bourbon poured over broken glass’ before amending that description to ‘a corncrake slowly drowning in honey’.
Others have used images such as nicotine in a nectar marinade (my attempt) or ‘a garbled drawl that shivers with purpose’. Her slurred Louisiana lilt is unmistakable; she might even be chewing on something, with mastication endangering enunciation. But, at its best, that weathered and wise voice is seductive and hypnotic.
Williams’ back catalogue is impressively deep. After struggling to make an impact and dismissed for being ‘too country for rock’ or ‘too rock for country’, she won a Grammy for her ground-breaking album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road in 1998. The highlights were the title track, a road song among the lost highways and dead-end streets of her acquaintance; Lake Charles which lamented the loss of a one-time boyfriend from her home town who loved his liquor too much; and – there’s a theme here – Drunken Angel, a touching elegy to obscure Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley who was shot dead trying to protect a friend. Foley hung out with the legendary, equally hard-living Townes Van Zandt who wrote Blaze’s Blues in his memory.
Williams has always been a perfectionist, another reason for her fractious relationship with record companies in the days before Americana, alt-country and ‘alternative anything’. It was only when she launched her own label, Highway 20 Records, finding a soulmate in husband and producer Tom Overby, that she gained complete control of the creative process. Industry doubters had earlier judged her material as ‘too dark’ but that was an exaggeration; there is sweetness amid the acidity, hope as well as despair. ‘This is my way of dealing with life. It’s therapeutic, cathartic.’
Two double albums, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone in 2014 and The Ghosts Of Highway 20 less than two years later, were recorded at roughly the same time in North Hollywood. This was prolific songwriting and proof that the sixtysomething is maturing like a vintage Napa Shiraz. Her music is best consumed at its most spicy; in defiant, confrontational mood, she is a formidable force.
Crossing or antagonising her would be foolish, and Foolishness is my favourite track on Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone for its throbbing intensity, vernacular that spits venom and musicianship of the highest order from Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. The song, a scathing put-down of life’s inanities and celebrity culture, begins with a gently picked electric guitar; then a simple drum beat invites a driving bass while a piano stirs the guitar maestros into embarking on their dazzling duel. It is a stirring backdrop for that voice to deliver its withering rebuke.
After the politicians are sent packing from the wrong side of the tracks in the deliciously snarling East Side Of Town, Lucinda is in the mood to banish intolerant fools, bigots and sycophants from her world…
All of this foolishness in my life,
All of this foolishness in my life, don’t need it.
What I do in my own time
Is none of your business and all mine.
She is taking on the ‘liars’, the ‘pie in the sky’ merchants and the ‘fear mongers’…
You can talk all the trash you want
But I know the truth and you don’t…
No matter how you go or where
I ain’t gonna follow you anywhere.
And then there’s the final message…
You can try to scare me down
But I know how to stand my ground.
Maybe not quite the final message. When I saw her live at the Brooklyn Bowl at London’s O2 in January 2016, Foolishness was the high point and she and her backing band the Buick 6 delivered an extended version for Williams to list all her current pet hates: ‘I don’t need Donald Trump in my life, I don’t need Republicans in my life, I don’t need the Tea Party in my life…’ The list went on, with the audience cheering every line and baying for more. I’m not sure whether she included Ukip, Le Pen, or Putin for that matter, but you got the idea.
The song has the urgency of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower albeit without the mysterious imagery. It was no surprise that the woman ejected from high school in 1969 for refusing to sing the pledge of allegiance should mark Trump’s inauguration day by linking up with jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd for a protracted rousing rendition of Dylan’s Masters Of War – ‘I don’t need these hawks in my life’, she could have added to Foolishness.
The live version of Foolishness lacked the finesse and subtlety of the recorded song but that was only to be expected in the absence of Frisell and Leisz. Tony Joe White, who had illuminated West Memphis and Something Wicked This Way Comes with his inimitable Cajun swamp funk – Williams calls him a Delta Jimi Hendrix – would have been a bonus too.
The Ghosts Of Highway 20 maintained the Muscle Shoals groove and confessional themes of regret, angst, anguish, guilt and heartbreak, like signposts on a country-blues journey south of the Mississippi delta. The resilient Williams is staring out the demons of mortality following the death of her father through Alzheimer’s; her last two albums have featured Compassion and Dust, adaptations of poems written by Miller Williams who had contributed to Bill Clinton’s second inauguration ceremony. On earlier albums she had dealt with her mother’s alcoholism and depression and the passing of damaged friends.
Which leads us back to Lake Charles, its gorgeous dobro-accordion interplay and nuanced lyric which possibly only Bonnie Raitt could have sung as plaintively…
Did an angel whisper in your ear
And hold you close and take away your fear
In those long last moments
And to Drunken Angel with its Byrds/Faces guitar accompaniment and bittersweet narrative…
Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart
Over the strings of your guitar
The worn-down places in the wood
That once made you feel so good
Drunken angel, drunken angel
You're on the other side
Yes, the territory has remained dark and difficult but Williams negotiates it with intelligence and sensitivity. There can be no doubt she is one of the great American songwriters, not just female songwriters. To believe otherwise would be foolishness.