Lucinda Williams on 'Ghosts of Highway 20' & Honoring Her Late Parents: 'It Was a Pretty Heavy Time of Loss'

Lucinda Williams
David McClister

Lucinda Williams

When listening to the songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20, the latest release from acclaimed singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, one might think of the set as a concept album. She tells Billboard that wasn't the intention, but she sees the correlation.

"It wasn't really an intentional idea to have a concept album, but it kind of came across that way, because some of the themes are similar. There's obviously a lot of grieving going on, for example," she notes. "Between my mother's death in 2004, and my father's [poet and literature professor Miller Williams] in 2015, I've been dealing with that process for the last 10 years or so. My father-in-law passed away about two months before my dad, so it was a pretty heavy time of loss."

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Most of the songs have been in Williams' catalog for a while, but her late parents did figure in two of the compositions. "I wrote 'Death Came' shortly after my mother died, and then 'If There's a Heaven' was written after my dad died. I had this one guy say, 'There's a lot of songs about death on here. Is that something you think of a lot?' Well, I do now. When you lose your parents and you get to be a certain age, that's just a part of life."

Losing both of her parents understandably had a sobering effect on Williams, making her realize that nothing lasts forever. "At a certain point, depending on the person -- you think you're invincible," she admitted. "That's how I felt all through my teens and 20s. Then you reach a point where you think, 'If I take too much of this, I might die.' But when you're a kid, your parents are still alive and you're still taken care of. There's always someone there. When my dad's mother died, we were both close to her, and she lived to be a hundred years old, he said, 'I don't have anybody over me now.' That's the feeling you get when you lose your second parent. There's no one alive in my family older than me. That kind of wakens you up."

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That's not totally a bad thing, the songwriter muses. After all, as one gets older, they become more comfortable in their own skin, which she says has had a profound effect on her work. "The subject matter changes, of course, as you get older. I met [music executive] Tom [Overby] and we got married. That changes your life. You're either going to find different subject matter to write about or you're not going to write anymore. You're going to explore other avenues. It's actually more challenging but also liberating. You also feel like you can always keep writing. You're never going to stop."

Hitting people where they live -- or, better yet, where they feel -- is important to Williams. Whether on record or on stage, she likes to make people think. "The fact of the matter is that I like to push people's buttons. I'm a rebel by nature. At the same time, my dad told me a long time ago to never censor yourself. If you start doing that, you're going to get in your own way. I developed a certain style where I can get my point across, but I don't want to be obnoxious about it."

That lack of fear applies itself to sometimes talking politics as well. "I do say things. When I do the song 'Foolishness,' I say, 'I don't need any foolishness in my life. I don't need any Donald Trump in my life,' and everybody cheers. I remember one time when Obama got elected, and I was playing somewhere, and this guy and his two daughters had come to see me. I mentioned Ralph Stanley and how I was so proud of him for how he came out in support of Obama. I talked about that a little bit, and they got up and left. But that's very rare that happens."

She says that with her own compositions, she hasn't visited that place, but has sometimes ruffled some feathers with her cover selections. "I remember after 9/11, I started singing this Bob Dylan song called 'Masters of War,' and there were a few people that were offended by that. Some woman in the audience got up and said, 'She shouldn't be singing that song. That's not appropriate.' I don't really mind pissing those kinds of people off."

As far as on her upcoming tour, the Louisiana native promises a heavy dose of the new music from The Ghosts of Highway 20. She says she's already doing a few of the new songs live -- including "Dust," a song that her father's work helped to inspire.

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"It's from a poem that he wrote. That's a pretty big part of the song. I'm very proud of it. Tom suggested that it would make a pretty good song. I felt kind of nervous about it. If you read it as a poem, it's very short in thought -- and you just can't throw music on behind it. You have to come up with an arrangement using those lyrics so you create a refrain. I've been trying to do it with this one poem he wrote, but it's much longer. I'm really happy with the way that track came out," she says wistfully.

Lucinda Williams 2016 tour dates:
March 4 – Los Angeles, CA – Royce Hall at UCLA
March 9 & 10 – Philadelphia, PA – World Café Live
March 12 – New Haven, CT – College Street Music Hall 
March 13, 14, 16, 17 & 18 – New York, NY – City Winery
March 19 – Tarrytown, NY – Tarrytown Music Hall
March 21 & 22 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club
March 24 & 25 – Toronto, ON – Opera House
March 26 – Kent, OH – Kent Stage
March 28 & 29 – Ann Arbor, MI – The Ark
March 30 – Nelsonville, OH – Stuart's Opera House
April 1-3 – Chicago, IL – Old Town School Of Folk Music
April 5, 6, 8 & 9 – Minneapolis, MN - Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
April 12 & 13 – Denver, CO – Bluebird Theater
April 14 – Breckenridge, CO – Riverwalk Center
April 17 & 18 – Dallas, TX – The Kessler Theater
April 22 & 23 – New Braunfels, TX – Gruene Hall