From country to blues through various sounds, the music of Lucinda Williams crosses generations and genders. The sound of his songs, many of which have an atmospheric tinge, have been influenced by musicians around the world. His work has been covered by artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty.
On Saturday, April 9, Williams and his band will perform at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Fans can expect to hear a wide range of his compositions encompassing sadness, joy and, in a change of writing direction for Williams, hot topics centered on politics and relevant issues of the day. Tickets are still available on the Virginia Theater website.
Williams, who has released fourteen albums and won three Grammy Awards, spoke with Smile Politely over the phone about what inspires her to write music. She also opened up about how the independent record labels of the 1990s made things better for artists and how the stroke she suffered in 2020 forced her to learn to walk again.
Smile Politely: With such a large catalog of songs, how do you select what you play live?
Lucinda Williams: I try to spread it out and do as many songs from as many different albums as possible. I try to incorporate enough different things that there is something for everyone. There are some that I know people want to hear all the time, like “Drunken Angel”. Then we have some that we always take out at the end, which are upbeat and upbeat like “Get Right with God” and “Joy” and “Changed the Locks.” These days, people need music that makes them have a good time.
SP: Why do you say that?
Williams: Make your choice. It’s either the COVID stuff or the political stuff. Bad news everywhere. There seems to be something going on all the time.
SP: Yeah. Like the war in Ukraine right now.
Williams: Yeah. It’s just a senseless tragedy. I talked about it the other day at a show. I made my song”The soulless manand dedicated it to Putin.
Image taken from Lucinda Willam’s website.
SP: Your 2020 album, good souls best angels, is one of the most topical of your career and conveys in words a lot of the things you were fed up with. Tell me about it.
Williams: Every day there was just more news about everything that was going on, and it was just constant to the point where I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all and wanted to take some of it off my chest. Sort of purge some of it.
I wanted to write more thematic songs. Over the years, I wanted to address certain issues, but those kinds of songs are hard to write. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I was really inspired and influenced by some of Bob Dylan’s protest songs, the anti-war songs. I grew up with all that. Those songs were really important to me because I was concerned about a lot of these hot issues then, and I still am today. I’m still the same person I was then. I used to sing his song “Masters of War”. I tried to write stuff like this and it’s very difficult. You don’t want to make it too many hearts and flowers, like “brothers and sisters” and “love and peace” and all that. Dylan has done such a great job writing these kinds of songs – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I was into all of this strongly.
SP: What does the title “Good Souls Better Angels” mean?
Williams: I guess it’s kind of a spiritual perspective. We all need all the help we can get. I like songs that deal with different issues. It’s not really political. It’s as much spiritual as anything else. I will do “Joy” [in concert]. I’ll do “Man Without a Soul” and “Faith and Grace” back to back. My song “Good Souls” goes along the same lines as a song like “Faith and Grace”.
SP: You are an artist who is not afraid to evolve. Why do you like to experiment when you make music?
Williams: I like a lot of different styles of music. People might be surprised by the kind of stuff I like, like some hip-hop artists. I like Hispanic music, Brazilian music, world music. It probably comes from listening to a lot of folk music over the years, because it comes from so many different places. The whole world perspective and connection with things – I like that in music. I love music from different countries and different cultures. I pay attention to all that. It’s bound to inspire me and come out in my music at some point because I’ve absorbed it for so many years, just different types of things.
SP: What kinds of things have inspired you to write songs over the years?
Williams: When I sit down to write it depends on my mood, but often it can depend on what I’ve been listening to that week. Maybe if I was in a Neil Young mood, I could write something that’s a bit in that mood. Everything becomes an influence, an inspiration. It could be a book I read. It can be a movie I saw or an album I listened to. I just like to try different things. I’ve always been like that.
SP: What is your favorite description of how someone has described your voice?
williams: Once — this is a good one — Emmylou Harris was interviewed about me. She said, “Lucinda can sing the chrome of an exhaust pipe.” I thought that was great.
Lucinda William’s Amazon Music page album cover.
SP: I worked as music director at Barnes and Noble in the late 1990s and your album Car wheels on a gravel road was selling briskly. You were definitely gaining mainstream notoriety at that time. How was this time for you?
Williams: You know, it was all happening, but it didn’t really affect me on a day-to-day basis. You don’t really feel any different. Everything is happening around you. I mean, once in a while you realize, ‘Wow, I’m on a different level than I used to be.’ But it’s not like you wake up and say, ‘Okay, everything is different now.’
SP: What do you like about the music industry today that you didn’t have when you were younger?
Williams: I can only speak from my point of view, how it affected me directly. The big difference would be that I get more respect than before, just because I’m a bit more successful and they kind of understand me now. When I started, there was this whole thing where they didn’t know how to market me. They said I fell between country and rock, which I guess is true. But for them it was a problem because they didn’t know where to put me. Like in record stores, where do you put a record? In the rock section or in the country section?
I think over the years it got better. The independent record label movement has really helped a lot. Smaller labels are more successful and better at what they do. I think when that was happening, the bigger labels would look at that and say, ‘Okay, we see what’s going on. That’s how it will work. They could see there was a way to make it work, taking artists like me and other kinds of outsiders, different artists that didn’t fit in anywhere and making it work in the music industry the music. I think that part has changed for the better.
Rough Trade Records really opened the door for me. It was this English independent label. They welcomed me, gave me a home and put me on the road. They immediately sent me to Europe to do concerts. It was a great little label. All they cared about was that they just liked different types of music. They left themselves open to different ideas and different types of artists. It didn’t matter if it was punk, folk, blues, country or whatever. Their feeling was that if it’s good, we’ll find a place for it. We will support him and we will support this artist.
SP: Your father was a teacher of creative writing and a published poet who instilled in you a love of language and music. Tell me about his influence.
Williams: When I started writing songs as a teenager, I started showing him stuff because I wanted his approval. I wanted him to think it was good. I didn’t know it was going to turn into a kind of mentorship, an apprenticeship in a way. He was looking at stuff and pointing things out to me and saying, ‘Well, that’s fine, but it might be better if you did that here.’ For several years, I sent him my songs before recording them to make sure they were acceptable. I liked doing it and I think he liked it too. He loved to teach. He brought this to the table. I was really lucky to have this.
Image by Erik Kabik from Lucinda William’s Facebook page.
SP: Your song “Mama You Sweet” is wonderful. Is this about your mom?
Williams: I wrote this after his death. She was a musician. She studied piano as a girl. When my mom and dad met, she was majoring in music at LSU. My mother loved the piano. She didn’t play professionally, just around the house and stuff. The genes were definitely there. My musical genes from my mother, my literary genes from my father.
SP: I’m glad you’re better since the stroke you had in November 2020. How has this incident affected your music and your life?
Williams: It changed everything, my whole view of things. I’ve been recovering ever since, and it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. I had to learn to walk again, which I can do now, but I had to use a cane. I couldn’t cross the living room floor without falling, until I learned to balance myself. I can’t play the guitar, which is the biggest disappointment. But I can sing. My voice was not affected. I can go out and do shows and I have my guys, my band. They support me. They play and I sing, so it always works. We’re still going out and doing shows and people love it. We just adapted and worked around things.
It helps me a lot, not just physically but emotionally, to go out and play and sing and do shows. It’s been really therapeutic and very calming to have that outlet. I’m really grateful to my fans for being so supportive through it all.