Like most of us these days, Lucinda Williams is at home. “We bought this house in Nashville, so we’re here in the house…” she trails off, as if trying to figure out something fascinating to share, before concluding with a laugh, “Just trying to do what everybody else is.”
With the coronavirus pandemic (which she calls “almost biblical”) sidelining the live shows that would have followed her new album Good Souls Better Angels, Williams, a veteran road warrior, and her husband Tom Overby are in an unusual spot right now: the couch.
“We’ve been getting dinner every night from UberEats and getting groceries on delivery services, getting caught up on Netflix,” she continues in her Louisiana drawl. “Tom and I are quite behind because we were always touring, so we watched the rest of Peaky Blinders and then the rest of Mindhunter. … We’re so behind, we’re watching stuff everybody else has already seen. We did watch the new one, with the tiger guy.” She chuckles. “You just sit there and go, really? Oh, last night we started I Am a Killer, where the people on death row tell their stories. It’s really good — it makes you angry. They talk about their childhoods, so obviously their childhood led them to where they are now. You’re thinking, ‘This guy doesn’t need to be on death row – he needs help.'”
As you can tell from the fact that a simple conversation about Netflix binge watching quickly turns toward pointed social commentary, Lucinda is pissed about a lot of what passes for normal in America – and unlike a number of artists in the country/Americana field she’s generally lumped in with, she isn’t afraid to say so.
Empathy for the lonely, forgotten and disenfranchised has long held sway in her songwriting, but it’s on full display with the release of the ripping, uninhibited Good Souls Better Angels, the most recent LP in a late-career hot streak that has produced one masterclass in singer-songwriter perfection after another with startling vitality and regularity — something unheard of for most artists whose debut dropped 41 years prior.
While her previous triumph, The Ghosts of Highway 20 was a hushed, meditative affair, Good Souls Better Angels is the long-awaited Lucinda Williams album that finds her studio cuts matching the ferocity she brings to her material on tour.
It finds her pen sharper, too. “I’m frustrated and angry,” she admits. “There’s more of that on this album than I’ve ever done. It felt so good to do those kinds of songs.” Not only does she speak to the maddening onslaught of dire headlines with the Dylan-esque “Bad News Blues” (especially apt for a pandemic) and tells off those who would deny her a voice on “You Can’t Rule Me” (a Memphis Minnie update), but she even takes a direct shot at the man at the top with “Man Without a Soul.”
While the seed of the song was planted by her husband, Williams shares Overby was anxious about her owning the message publicly. “Tom says to me, ‘Well, don’t tell everyone that song is about Trump.’ And I go, ‘I’m not telling everybody — they know already.'” She laughs. “Tom is funny, he goes, ‘Well, it could be about Mitch McConnell too — maybe it’s about all the assholes.'” A lifelong Neil Young acolyte, she likens her timely tune to his 1976 deep cut “Campaigner.” “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s write a song about the president,’ but it reminds me of one of Neil’s older songs, [where he says] ‘even Richard Nixon has soul’; it’s like that, but opposite. Trump makes Nixon look good.”
Overby, whom Williams married in 2009, gets co-writing credits on the majority of the album’s 12 tracks. Sharing that credit is a first for Lucinda, and unlike targeting the commander in chief, it was something she was uncertain about… at first.
“I was hesitant about the idea, like, ‘Oh, now she’s writing with her husband,’ but nobody’s reacted that way,” Williams shares. “It is still me. It reminds me of Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen [Brennan]; they’ve written stuff together, but it’s still Tom Waits.” And at the end of the day, she decided it was only right to give Overby credit for his creative efforts, even while he demurred. “He was real shy about it. He’d say, ‘No, no, I can be in the background,’ and I was like, ‘NO.’ I found it very liberating having Tom involved in the writing. It opens up another door to ideas, and I’ve never done it before with anybody.”
Not that Williams in an artist wanting for inspiration. Even her recent one-off soundtrack song “Lost Girl” for the Netflix film Lost Girls was an immediate masterpiece, a swirling folk-rock odyssey that takes the breath away. How an artist of 67 years who’s been releasing music for four decades stays fresh and engaging remains a wonder, and it’s not something Williams herself knows the secret to.
“I’ve always had a strong will and drive, and I didn’t have children and all of that, I just… was on one path,” she opines of her career’s gradual upward trajectory. “And I never considered not doing it anymore. When you’re in it, doing it, you don’t realize how much time has gone by. Maybe that’s because before I got signed, it had been about 15 years altogether from when I first went out playing in coffeehouses and bars. I spent a long time working on my craft. So maybe that’s part of it.”
That being said, she didn’t attack her career with the same focus in the early years. Her 1979 debut Ramblin’, an all-covers affair recorded for Folkways for $200, came about because a friend told her, “You know, you could do a record for Folkways; it’s not that hard, just send ’em a cassette tape of songs.”
After two albums for the label and time spent gigging between Austin and Houston, she made the move to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s to test out the music business. And it wasn’t entirely pleasant. While a development deal with Sony allowed her to record demos of future classics such as “Passionate Kisses” and “Changed the Locks,” the label ultimately passed on her. “Sony, the LA label, said it was too country, and Sony in Nashville said I was too rock for country,” she recalls wryly. “This was pre-Americana — they didn’t know how to market it. I got passed on by all the major labels and the minor labels too. I was pretty fed up at that point and ready to go back to Texas, and along comes Rough Trade Records. They’d heard the demo tape I’d done for Sony. It fell into the hands of Robin Hurley, the A&R guy for Rough Trade. It took a European punk label to be open-minded enough to sign me. They’d never even see me perform. They said, ‘We like your songs, we like your voice, do you want to make a record?’ They were trying to branch out at the time. So of course I said yes — I didn’t have any other options.”
Even after the release of her 1988 self-titled album, now regarded as an alt-country classic, it was still a slow road to recognition for Williams. But her resilience and consistency went a long way toward establishing Americana as a genre with commercial appeal — particularly with the 1998 release of the Grammy-winning masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Coincidentally, it was a recent offer from Car Wheels engineer Ray Kennedy to come check out his Nashville studio that got the recording of Good Souls Better Angels rolling (he’s credited as co-producer on the new album). And Williams says that studio — stuffed with vintage guitars and amplifiers — is part of the reason the album is as “explosive” as it is. “It’s the album I’ve always wanted to do — more of a garage rock, punk, grungy kind of thing,” she says. “We’re all frustrated. It feels good to have an outlet and make a statement. This one needed to come out and kick some ass.”