Talking with Lucinda Williams about "Highway 20"
Interstate 20 spans 1,535 miles, from Texas to South Carolina. It’s highly possible that Lucinda Williams has a memory – if not a song – for every stop on this highway that snakes through her native region.
On her new record, The Ghosts of Highway 20 (out Feb. 5 on Highway 20/Thirty Tigers), Williams finds common threads in songs originally recorded for her previous release, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, and newer songs, such as the title track, which is imbued with the weariness of a long drive while simultaneously praising the familiar. The album also includes an aching cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” – aching because it’s in honor of her factory-worker father-in-law, who recently passed. But it’s also a nod to Williams’ husband and manager, Tom Overby, who grew up in a factory town.
Grief pours in throughout the record over Williams’ recent loss of her father, poet and English professor Miller Williams. Conversations with him had a major influence on her creativity. On the songs that are more directly about him, it’s palpable that while her voice hasn’t lost any power, there’s something missing now. And the songs are more striking for that. “If There’s a Heaven” is pleading, doubting, hopeful, exhausted.
Despite such poignant goodbyes throughout The Ghosts of Highway 20, there’s still an innocent nostalgia to be heard, as well as a wisdom Williams has been accumulating over the years. This record is not only for anyone who has their own ghosts along Highway 20, but also for those who have ever been haunted by just how real the memories of a place can be.
What follows are excerpts from a recent interview with Williams in which we talked about those memories and so much more. The interview has been edited for length and continuity.
Erin Lyndal Martin: What made you choose to write an album with Highway 20 as the backbone? Or did the subject choose you?
Lucinda Williams: Well … first I came up with “Highway 20” as the name of the label, because Tom and I have our own label now, under the umbrella of Thirty Tigers. We wanted to call it Gravel Road Records. That was taken already. … [But] I just love the idea of a highway – like Highway 61 and Route 66. There’s so much history there. So many of those highways have been taken over by freeways.
[Also,] I went back to Macon, Georgia, to do a show years ago, for the first time in I don’t know how many years since I’ve been there. We played the Cox Theater in downtown Macon, which is where the Allman Brothers got their start. It really surprised me how little Macon had changed. I had lived there as a child. I started school there. Downtown Macon is – I mean, there’s hardly anything new about it. So that was kind of mind-blowing.
I had that feeling – we’re on the tour bus leaving, and as we were riding out away from Macon, I was looking out the window and I kept seeing these exit signs for other towns, like Vicksburg, Mississippi, where my brother was born. And Jackson, Mississippi, where my sister was born. And [Highway 20] runs through Atlanta. We lived in Atlanta. [There’s] Monroe, Louisiana, where my mother was laid to rest. And I’m going, “Wow, this is where I grew up. I’m all connected to this highway.” So it just kind of came full circle.
Tom came up with the idea a few years later, when we were putting this album together. [He said,] “Wow, if you could come up with a song based on what you’re experiencing [about] Highway 20 … ”
At first, I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got so many songs about the South, and I kind of did that already with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” I’ve got “Lake Charles,” I’ve got “Jackson,” I’ve got “Bus to Baton Rouge.”
I said, “What am I going to say that I haven’t said already?” And he said, “Well, just give it a shot.”
It helps to have somebody gently pressure you, to try to write a new song, so I said “Okay.”
I messed around with it for a few days, and then I finally hit on something. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say at first. And then, I don’t know, something came. I came up with the song [“Highway 20”], and then [that had to be] the title of the album.
So that’s the story. [That highway] sort of ties everything together, because a lot of the songs are about looking back.
What are the earliest memories you have of that highway?
Well, it’s not the highway in and of itself. It’s just the places, particularly Macon, because that’s where I started school. That’s where I learned to read and write. Some of the places, we only lived for a year or two, like Atlanta. My dad was teaching at different colleges, so we went for a year or two here, a year or two there.
I mean, when I say my brother was born in Vicksburg, I was only 2 years old. So I’m not going to remember much of anything of that. …
I remember during that time, there were a couple of things that were pretty significant. One was my dad[’s] main mentor – he called her his greatest teacher – was Flannery O’Connor, who lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, which was not too far from Macon. It’s just about an hour, maybe.
She invited him to come and meet with her at her country house – that house where you always see her, [in] one of the few photos of her on the front porch, standing there. He took me with him, and I vaguely remember it. She raised peacocks, and they were running around the farmhouse. My dad said that I was chasing the peacocks.
She was very old-school Southern. She had a housekeeper, who was sort of her maid, for lack of a better word. [She had] a black woman who helped her, and helped her keep the house up.
Flannery was very disciplined, apparently, unlike myself – and she would write from, I don’t know, 8 in the morning until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. And if you got there to visit before that, you had to wait outside on the front porch.
So we got there a little bit before she was done, and my dad says he remembers … he looked over and saw the Venetian blinds being drawn, because she was still writing. And then after, when she got done, her housekeeper came and opened the door, and invited us in, and he went in. I think I stayed outside and played.
"Delta blues and Flannery O’Connor. I mean, that’s pretty much it. That’s me in a nutshell."
Whatever memories I have of it, consciously, I’m sure there was a lot more that seeped into my bloodstream, subconsciously. [When I was] 15 or 16, I discovered Flannery – discovered her writing and just devoured her writing, read everything I could get my hands on. It shows up in my writing. Songs like “Atonement” and “Get Right with God.” And some lines in “2 Kool 2 B 4 Gotten.”
The other significant thing was that my dad one day took me with him [to] downtown Macon, to see this blind preacher. [He was a] street singer by the name of Blind Curly Brown, who made, I think, one album. This would have been, like, in 1960 or something.
There was a small crowd of people around, and he was real inspired – obviously influenced and inspired by Blind Willie Johnson. He played all blues, spiritual stuff. Slide guitar. Real primitive, raw. When you listen to his recordings, it’s hard to even understand the words sometimes, because it was so primitive and raw.
There again, I was six years old listening to this blues preacher, playing slide guitar and sounding like Blind Willie Johnson, [and] it’s seeping into my bloodstream. Delta blues and Flannery O’Connor. I mean, that’s pretty much it. That’s me in a nutshell.
When you think about traveling down there, is there a certain fragrance it has to you?
Honeysuckle. I remember that a lot from growing up in that area. The honeysuckle that would be just growing as you walked along the sidewalk, by people’s houses. And magnolias, [but that was] more in Louisiana, I guess.
The smell of honeysuckle is so strong, and I love that. Those little tiny white [flowers] – God, I miss those. I miss that. I miss a lot, not being in the South.
What else do you miss about the South?
The grass – freshly cut grass … I’ve got another song that’s on the album, “Louisiana,” where I mention that kind of imagery.
How do you avoid repeating yourself?
That’s a good question. That’s part of the craft, I think, of being a songwriter. That’s something that I’ve always strived [for] over the years – not repeating myself.
I remember my dad – when I was writing Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – I would show him my songs before I recorded them. I had this obsession – he had to approve them before I would let them out into the world.
I remember, I was just finishing “Lake Charles,” and I’d already written “Drunken Angel.” I was talking to my dad on the phone about that line – he didn’t think I should use the word “angel” again, because I’d already used it in “Drunken Angel.” That line in “Lake Charles,” “Did an angel whisper in your ear?” My dad said, “You shouldn’t be using this word again. You’ve already used it in ‘Drunken Angel’ and now you’re using it again. You’re relying on this word too much.”
I struggled with it. He suggested, “Did the devil whisper in your ear?” I said, “No, no, no. I can’t do that, dad. No, no.”
Usually, I would bend to his suggestions, because they would be better suggestions. But I said, “It has to be that word. It has to be ‘angel.’”
He said, “Okay. But that’s it. You used it – used up your card. You’ve already used [that word] twice on two different songs, on the same album.” That was one of the creative writing lessons that I got from him.
Do you miss that about him? That you could have those conversations?
Yeah. Oh God, yes. Yeah. That’s one of the many things.
I sent him the songs that were going to be on the Essence album, and they were already all done. I just sent him a demo of the songs, and I said, “So Dad, what do you think?” And he said, “I think this is as close to poetry as you’ve ever gotten.”
I said, “Does that mean I’ve graduated?”
He just kind of laughed and said, “Yeah.” And then that was it. I was off on my own. Little bird spread her wings and flew the nest.
One thing I was curious about with this record is your cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.” I really loved your take on it, but wondered how it fit in with the rest of the songs for you.
I learned that song at the suggestion of Tom, during the Occupy Wall Street movement. We played the Fillmore in San Francisco for a couple nights, and we decided to dedicate part of each night to doing songs that had to do with the labor movement, [and] working people.
That was one of the songs that came up, which I had never heard. I wasn’t familiar with it before that. But Tom is a huge Springsteen fan, and one of the [things] that draws him to Bruce Springsteen is that Tom grew up in a factory town, in Austin, Minnesota, which is about an hour south of Minneapolis. His dad worked for 30-plus years at the Hormel meat packing plant. There was a documentary that came out about the factory in Austin. There was a big union strike there. It was a big story. It was a beautiful documentary, called American Dream.
[Anyway,] Tom grew up in a factory town. His parents were still married. His dad retired a couple years right before the strike, but you don’t meet very many people like that who grew up in a factory town.
The other part of it is, his dad passed away at the end of November last year. Like, right around Thanksgiving – right after Thanksgiving. And then my dad passed away on January 1, so needless to say, it’s [been] a pretty intense last couple years.
So anyway, we worked on “Factory” and I just loved it. I loved the song, [I] immediately fell in love with it. So then, when we were in the studio, he said, “Let’s cut ‘Factory.’” We cut a few other cover songs [too]. Lou Reed had just passed away when we were in the studio. It didn’t end up on the album, but we recorded “Pale Blue Eyes.”
[We also recorded] “Magnolia,” which ended up on [Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone]. We recorded Merle Haggard’s “If I Make It Through December.”
There were one or two other ones like that. We just jumped in and said, “Hey, let’s cut this,” because we were really comfortable in the studio.
The last couple albums, [we’ve] been working at this place called Dave’s Room in North Hollywood. It’s one guy who’s the owner [and] also the engineer. It’s a small studio. There’s one other guy, the assistant engineer, and that’s it. It’s like a little home away from home. There’s a whole kitchen there. You can just get in there and nestle in, and just go and go.
But anyway, that song [“Factory”] is really kind of a tribute to [Tom’s] dad. It’s hard for me to not have a tear roll down my cheek sometimes when I’m doing that song. It’s such a well-written song, because it’s so concise: “Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.”
Tom told me one time, he said, “I’ve seen that.” And he said, “I could have been one of those guys.” But you would never know that he grew up in that kind of town. He left as soon as he could.
"[Dad] said, 'I think this is as close to poetry as you’ve ever gotten.' I said, 'Does that mean I’ve graduated?' He just kind of laughed and said, 'Yeah.' ... I was off on my own. Little bird spread her wings and flew the nest.
Do you have favorite albums to listen to, that bring you back to the places you grew up?
There are albums that I listen to that I have emotional ties to, and then I’ll remember where I was living when I discovered that album. Like Judy Collins’ Wildflowers.
The first one that my mother actually bought and turned me on to [was] Joan Baez Vol. 2. [But,] probably the most significant one would have been Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I was 12 and a half years old and we were living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My dad was teaching at LSU, and I hadn’t heard [Bob Dylan’s] albums yet, so this was the first one I heard.
It was 1965. This student of my dad’s came over to the house to have a meeting with my dad, and he brought the album over, all excitedly. That’s what people used to do. When the new album would come out … like the Beatles … everybody would get all excited. You’d get together with your friends, and you’d sit and listen to the whole album in somebody’s house.
So [this student] brought this album over, [saying,] “Listen to this, listen to this.” Of course, my dad was kind of – whatever. He sat it down in the living room, I guess, and went in my dad’s office to talk with him, so I put it on the stereo. And it blew my little 12-year-old brain.
There again, I didn’t understand everything that was going on, lyrically. But something seeped into my bones and I said, “Wow.” I’d just started taking guitar lessons that year, so that set things in motion – probably more subconsciously.
[Dylan] put the two worlds together that I had just come out of: the folk [music] that I was familiar with – Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, the list goes on and on – and the literary world that my dad was in. I went, “Wow. This guy’s putting both together.”
I fell madly in love with him. I mean, look at him in that photograph on the cover, with his little boyish face and his curly hair, and the motorcycle. I was just like, “Rah!” Even at the age of 12. At some point I said to myself, I want to be as good as that. I set the bar really high, because I wanted to please my dad, and I wanted to be [as] good [as Bob Dylan]. I wanted to please myself.
And also, as surprising as it might seem now, I didn’t have a voice. At a certain point, I figured out, I’m not going to be able to sing like Joan Baez or Judy Collins, or, later, Emmylou Harris, or Joni Mitchell, or Linda Ronstadt. It just wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t have that kind of range, and I hadn’t really discovered my voice yet.
I learned how to play guitar. I could learn songs, and then start messing around with writing songs. I decided, well, look at [Bob Dylan’s] songs. He doesn’t have a great voice but it works for him. I’m going to learn how to be a really good songwriter, so I have that, so nobody tries to compare my voice [to those singers], so I wouldn’t have to rely on my singing.
There weren’t that many [women] … I mean, it really wasn’t until I heard Bobbie Gentry. I went, “Oh my God. Somebody I can identify with vocally.” That kind of lower, husky voice – and talk about Southern. That album came out in what, 1967? So those were really formative years for me, between … 1965 and ’69. God. Everything was coming out. Mind-blowing stuff. Leonard Cohen’s first album, and Bobbie Gentry, and Jimi Hendrix.
When you sing, especially with the new songs, is there anything in your mind’s eye, in particular?
Yeah, a lot. I mean, it depends on the mood I’m in. It’s all connected when you’re onstage – the venue, the audience, the vibe, and everything.
I do “Lake Charles” probably every night. That song seems to really resonate. I don’t know why, but that one, I still think back, and I think about Clyde, the guy I wrote it about. I do that with all my songs.
I’ve been asked that a couple times. Like, am I just kind of going through the motions? Or am I reliving the fruits of my labor?
I’m definitely back there. I think you have to really be able to put the emotion into it. I mean, I get choked up sometimes onstage. It’s hard to get through a song sometimes, especially when they’re really new and raw, like “Dust.” I still haven’t performed some of the new songs.
In fact, I was thinking about this. I still haven’t performed “If My Love Could Kill.” We haven’t done that one yet. [And] when I started singing “If There’s a Heaven,” I really had a hard time getting through that one.
I think it’s a good thing that you’re showing your humanity as well as your artistry.
Thank you. Yeah, God, I don’t know how you can do it any other way. I mean, if you’re a true artist, you have to show that. That’s what art is, really – it comes from you first. It’s very cathartic, and the writing part of it is very therapeutic. Or maybe I should say the writing is cathartic and the singing is therapeutic, and it all goes together.
But, yeah. I have so many songs, and I’ve had so many losses now. So much loss – with my mother and my father, both. My brother’s alive, but he’s estranged from the family by his own choice. So in a sense, he’s gone, too. And friends, [and] colleagues. That’s what happens, the older you get. You’re surviving more and more, dealing with more loss and more pain, so it becomes even more important, I think, to have this outlet.
Because when I have those really special nights where I’m really connecting with the audiences, it’s almost like a spiritual thing. At the end of the night, I’ve been saying to the audiences, “Thank you for your gift to me.” And the looks on their – see, it almost makes me want to cry right now. Because it’s so, like you said, the [human] thing of it.
They look at me like, “Wow.” [But] I want them to know that we’re on the same level. We’re on the same page. I don’t like the idea of being above them, or something. I want them to know that they’ve given me something, too, [that] it’s a two-way street. So, at the end of the night – after the encores, they’re all standing, and they’re all, like, clapping and smiling, and I say, “Thank you for your gift to me.”