Salt of the Earth

Lucinda Williams rides her ‘ghosts of the highway’ to the Victoria

By Dave Gil de Rubio

Photo: Lucinda Williams performs May 2 at the Victoria Theatre; photo: David McClister

In the 1968 song “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones sang, “Let’s drink to the hardworking 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 current 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 Williams’ late father’s vocation as a visiting college professor—places like Vicksburg, Missippi, 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.

The Louisiana native and her longtime rhythm section of David Sutton (bass) and Butch Norton (drums) were joined by guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz on the new album. The latter duo, who played on Williams’ 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 Williams 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 other songs, for the singer-songwriter, the contributions of Frisell and Leisz and the song’s subjects made for a perfect marriage.

“It’s such a great-sounding record,” she says. “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.’”

“[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. In the aching minimalist shuffle “If My Love Could Kill,” she sings of the “Slayer of wonder, slayer of words/Murderer of poets, murder of songs.”

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.

That’s a surge in writing output for Williams, who 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, on such stellar albums as her 1988 self-titled effort, 1992’s Sweet Old World, and 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). 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 Williams’ 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 Williams can’t exactly explain.

“I’m not really sure [where this creative burst] has come from,” she says. “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.”

 

Lucinda Williams performs Tuesday, May 2 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. and tickets range from $39.50 to 49.50. For tickets and more information, please visit LucindaWilliams.com, VictoriaTheatre.com, or call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Dave Gil de Rubio at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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