Lucinda Williams performs in Breckenridge
Special to the Daily
IF YOU GO
What: Lucinda Williams, presented by Breckenridge Creative Arts
When: Thursday, April 14
Where: Riverwalk Center, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are priced at $35, $45 and $55 for gold circle seats (first six rows, center section), and can be purchased at the Riverwalk Center Ticket Office, by phone at (970) 547-3100 or online at breckcreate.org
In the 1968 song, “Salt of the Earth,” The Rolling Stones sang, “Let’s drink to the hard working people/Let’s think of the lowly of birth/Spare a thought for the rag taggy people/Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.” On her new two-CD set, “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” Lucinda Williams sings and writes about many of these same types of folks.
Feeding off the inspiration of the many towns her family lived in along that rural interstate due to her late father’s vocation as a visiting college professor — places like Vicksburg, Mississippi and Minden, Louisiana — the acclaimed singer-songwriter has recorded 14 songs populated by the same kinds of blue collar individuals she came to know growing up in the deep South.
Lucinda Williams will perform at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge on Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m., presented by Breckenridge Creative Arts.
The Louisiana native and her longtime rhythm section of David Sutton (bass) and Butch Norton (drums) were joined in by guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz on the new album. The latter duo, who played on her 2014 double-CD set, “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” bring a very ethereal ambiance to the tone of the current project. It’s particularly effective on character-driven fare like the sleepy jazz arrangement that tells the tale of a junkie in “I Know All About It” and the bluesy “Doors of Heaven,” which finds her taking on the world-weary voice of a dying person ready to move on.
And while a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory,” suggested by her manager/husband Tom Overby, has had some interviewers nitpicking that a cover by a New Jersey-based artist doesn’t fit in with the southern motif of the others songs, for the singer-songwriter, the contributions of Frisell and Leisz and the song subjects made for a perfect marriage.
“It’s such a great-sounding record. Everybody loved the last one — it’s great too, but this one has this thing where people are saying it’s so deep. I was doing a radio interview with Steve Earle for Sirius XM and he said, ‘The thing I think with this album is that I’ve never heard you sound like this before’” she recalled. “(The Ghosts of Highway 20) represents working people, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the Midwest, Northeast or Southeast. It’s about working-class people and the struggles they go through, Tom’s family went through and my family went through. My dad didn’t work at a factory, but I grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes, and we had secondhand furniture. I shopped at thrift shops, and we lived in rental houses. We never owned a house until we settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1971.”
Looming large on this record is the spirit of Williams’ late father Miller, a poetry and literature professor who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease on Jan. 1, 2015. Not only does she sing of the “Slayer of wonder, slayer of words/Murderer of poets, murder of songs” in the aching minimalist shuffle “If My Love Could Kill,” but on “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone,” she took one of her father’s poems and set it to music on the gorgeous acoustic opener “Compassion.”
It’s an exercise she had wanted to do for years, but as she explained, transposing from a poem to a song is an inexact science. She thinks, though, she may have found the key.
“That’s the thing, when you’re singing, the words kind of have to roll off. It’s so different than when you’re reciting a poem and you have to come up with some sort of refrain, hook or line,” she said. “But now, I’m excited because I feel like I’ve kind of figured out the formula sort of. The other thing is that both of these poems are really short, concise poems.
“There’s this one other older poem of his that I’ve always loved called ‘Why Does God Permit Evil’, but it’s a much longer, rambling poem,” she said. “That was the one that for years and years I’ve tried to turn into a song, and I’ve never gotten anywhere with it. When I sat down to do ‘Compassion,’ it was a whole different thing working with a shorter poem. Basically, I had to stretch it out, repeat some of the lines and maybe move some of the words around so they rhyme. Again, not all poetry rhymes in the way that songs rhyme. That’s basically what I did, and I was pretty proud of myself, I have to admit.”
While Williams and Overby have both gone through the heartache of losing parents, the love the two have for each other has sparked a prolific creative streak for Williams that has yielded a pair of solid double-CDs in the past four years. It’s quite a leap for someone who unfairly gained a reputation as a perfectionist and slow worker — mainly because of the six-year gap between her fourth and fifth albums, “Sweet Old World” and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”
In reality, she has had a productive recording career, with most of the 10 albums she has released since 1988 coming at two-year intervals. That 1988 release, a self-titled effort, was her third album and the one on which Williams came into her own as a songwriter. It included “Passionate Kisses,” a song that Mary Chapin Carpenter later recorded and turned into a hit single, and “Changed The Locks,” which was covered by Tom Petty.
With subsequent albums like 1992’s “Sweet Old World,” 1998’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (which gave Williams her first taste of commercial success and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album) and 2001’s “Essence,” she established herself as one of music’s best and most literate songwriters, as her vivid lyrics were paired with songs that mixed rock, blues, country and folk.
Her sound has grown more laid back on her more recent albums — “The Ghosts of Highway 20” leans predominantly toward deliberate and gentler territory — but the quality of her songwriting has remained strong, even as she turned out 34 songs for “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” and “The Ghosts of Highway 20.”
Exactly what has triggered the prolific stretch of writing for the two most recent albums is something she can’t exactly explain.
“I’m not really sure (where this creative burst) has come from,” she said. “It’s this period in my life and being in this place where I feel where I’m comfortable. It’s given me more freedom being happily married and in that kind of situation that’s forcing me to push myself to find other things to write about besides unrequited love. I have to be in a certain state of mind to feel like writing. The other side of it all is that you can draw on those things that created the pain. I just look at it like an endless well where I dip into it and pull stuff out that goes all the way back into my childhood and not just my own life. It’s really been liberating to be in that place as a writer.”
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