Live Virtual Session: Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams performs a Live Virtual Session for The Current, hosted by Bill DeVille. (MPR Video)

From her home in East Nashville, Tenn., singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams connects The Current's Bill DeVille to talk about and play songs from her latest album, Good Souls Better Angels.

You can watch the interview in the video player above, and read a full transcript below.

Interview Transcript

BILL DeVILLE: It's another Virtual Session from The Current. My name's Bill DeVille, and I'm so excited to be chatting with Lucinda Williams. She has a fine new album called Good Souls Better Angels. Lucinda, how are you? It's nice to have you along with us.

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Thanks. I'm OK. Hanging in there.

How's things in East Nashville?

Well, from the perspective of the inside of my house, it's pretty good. I haven't been out. I went over to Ray Kennedy's studio to do something, and another thing like that. But, since, like, May 10 or something, I've been, you know, in lockdown mode. I'm kind of getting used to it now!

Do you like it? I mean, you're somebody who's out on the road, on tour all the time, you're a road warrior for 40-plus years.

I kind of like it. There's an aspect of it that I like, you know? Because it sort of feels like I'm on break in between tours, except it's a longer break. But it's given me time to get caught up with things. And I'm taking advantage of the time.

We just moved into this house in East Nashville, so we're working on that stuff, you know, getting furniture and stuff. And I've been doing [inaudible], you know, these kinds of things. I'm getting to kind of understand the Zoom thing, the Zoom world, which is a whole new world!

Yeah, none of us even knew what it was in February, and here we are and it's May…

I know, I know!

And you survived the tornado. What was that experience like?

Yeah, well … We had literally just moved into the house, I guess a couple weeks before that. You know, they give you some warnings and everything; you just have to pay attention to it, but you don't ever know how it's going to go. And, you know, we just kind of huddled in the house, and then we heard this big sound.

You don't really realize the aftermath of it till you go outside the next day. And then it turns out we didn't get hit as bad as some of our neighbors. But it basically destroyed the front porch and knocked down the fences and messed up the roof. So we're in the process of getting all that stuff fixed.

Sure. It's complicated and hard to find the contractors and get all the stuff taken care of, isn't it?

Yes. Yes, it is. Yeah.

Well, how about some music? What are you going to play for us, Lucinda?

OK. I was going to play the first track off the album, called "You Can't Rule Me," which was inspired by Memphis Minnie's song.

[music: Lucinda Williams, "You Can't Rule Me"]

That's Lucinda Williams and a track from the new album, Good Souls Better Angels. It's a Virtual Session from The Current, my name is Bill DeVille, and that's called "You Can't Rule Me."

Now, you mentioned Memphis Minnie; was she big for you? Was that an artist you really admired when you were first discovering music?

Yeah. I guess, well, I discovered her sometime in the '70s, I think. She was the first Delta blues artist — woman artist — I discovered who played guitar and wrote her own songs. That was a pretty big deal.

Now speaking of the blues, the blues is like really kind of all over this album, isn't it?

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah, it's really bluesy; in fact, I hear like a Chicago-bluesy sounding track that you're going to play here in just a little bit. What inspired that bluesy sound on the record?

Well, I think, you know, the nature of the songs. You know, I have my band in there who I've been working with for a long time, and we were in between tours, and so, you know, the wheels were greased.

It was a combination of that, [inaudible] Ray Kennedy, he has this amazing collection of vintage guitars and amplifiers, so that helped get that certain kind of sound, and then Ray himself at the board, and I didn't, you know, tell him what to do or anything; he just instinctively — I mean, the first track we covered was, I think, "You Can't Rule Me." And right away, you know, I said, "God, I love this! It sounds amazing!"

And I've been wanting to get that sound on a record. So that just inspired all the rest of it, you know? We cut a bunch of stuff, and then at some point, it became clear as to which songs fit together for the album. I mean, the tracking was done in probably about — within a couple of week period, a few days here, a few days there.

And then we didn't really have any overdubs, you know, other people come in, except Ray brought this guy to come in and play keyboards on a couple keyboard parts, but other than that, we just left it just us. And so that adds to that sound I think, too.

It sure does. And Stuart Mathis, your guitar player, he really cuts loose on this album.

Yeah!

Did you just tell him, say, "Hey, just shred on this one?" Or did you just kind of fool around with it?

Tom [Overby] was there as co-producer with Ray. I mean, everybody just, you know, we all worked together on it. I mean, there probably were a couple of times, maybe, where I think I remember Tom saying something to Stuart like, "Don't hold back, man; just go!"

But that was the general atmosphere, you know?

And then we had, I remember telling [drummer] Butch [Norton], "Don't play so many cymbals" and all, because he loves all his cymbals and percussion stuff and all that. We started to play this one song, and he started right away on his cymbals and all that stuff, and I turned to Tom and went, "No! I don't want it like that."

Tom went over to Butch and said, "Dude, lose the cymbals!"

Other than that, though, it was pretty organic, really, the whole process, you know.

Lucinda Williams performing in Washington DC in 2015
Lucinda Williams performing in Washington, D.C., in 2015. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Well, it's a great sounding record.

Yeah, it is a great sounding record. Yeah, well, that's Ray.

Congratulations.

Thank you.

All right, what are you going to play this time?

I was going to play "Bad News Blues," which is an appropriate song for the times.

Sure is. Yeah.

Yeah — but when has there not been bad news?

[music: Lucinda Williams, "Bad News Blues"]

Ah, that's nice. It has such a great Chicago blues feel on that one. I just love it.

Yeah. Yeah.

I noticed you have many political songs on this new album.

Yeah.

It seems like this is the first time you've done a full album of songs in that kind of vein. Is that true?

Yeah, there are more of them on this album, yeah. That was just kind of — you know, I've been working on some of them for a while. In fact, "Bone of Contention," I wrote several years ago. I was going to put it on my Little Honey album [2008]; the one right after West [2007]. And for whatever reason, it just didn't — I decided not to.

That happens sometimes; it just doesn't fit or something, you know? And of course, now, it's perfect for this album. And the "Big Rotator" song, I've been working on that forever; I got that idea of the little refrain part I had carried around with me in my notes and everything for a long time.

The spirit or the atmosphere has been very, you know, fraught with tension and anger and frustration for some time now, and it's just built up and built up. So that was definitely on my mind, you know, when I was getting the songs ready for this album. But we cut some other ones too that aren't topical songs, but at a certain point, these all just fit together so well.

Now this is also the first album where you've written songs with Tom [Overby], your husband.

Yeah!

Is it hard to share songwriting credits? You know, something you've been doing on your own for so long?

Well, you know, that was sort of a gradual process, too, going back to probably, like, "Ghosts of Highway 20," that particular song, the idea for that was his idea.

And, you know, he was really shy about it; he's always been into creative writing and all, and you know, over time he would, just a little bit at a time, he would come up with a couple of lines or a title or an idea, and he'd say — like, I would be in the writing mode — and he'd come up and say, "Well, I've got this idea for something, but you don't have to use it or anything, but I just want to show it to you."

It was kind of like that. Then he got a little bit braver as time went on.

When I was doing the songs for this album, he really came up with some great stuff. Basically, the process would be he would come up to me with the idea for a song and, you know, maybe a couple of verses or a refrain or something like that, but it wouldn't have a melody or anything yet. And then I would fill in the rest, arrange it and write the melody and everything.

But it's been great because, really, it's just opened up a whole new world. I'm very open to the idea of it. I think both of us were a little hesitant at first. Tom, he was so modest about it; he kept saying, "You don't have to put my name on anything. I just want to make sure the songs get written and everything," and I kept saying, "No, no, you're going to — I'm giving you credit!"

It must be nice to have somebody to bounce ideas off, I suppose, huh?

Yeah, it is. And I never had done it before, you know, really. It reminded me of, I like to think, compare it to Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen [Brennan] when they started working together. But yeah, it's been great. It just expands the horizons, you know, really.

And you and Tom were married at First Avenue 10 years ago already.

I know! We were just talking about that last night.

What other great memories do you have of playing at First Avenue? It turns 50 this year.

Oh, god … it's one of my favorite venues in the entire country, you know.

From the first time I played — well, the first time I played there, actually I played at the 7th Street Entry. I played there I think with Gurf Morlix, you know, my old guitar player.

Right.

I know I did one with him at least, and probably a couple. That would have been back in the '80s. And then I worked my way up to playing in the big room with my band at some point.

I just love the way they honor the artists so much. They honor the musicians. The people who work there, it's just really a welcoming place. And how fun is it to see your name on the outside? On the brick wall and everything along with all these other legendary punk and rock bands?

First Avenue in Minneapolis
First Avenue in Minneapolis. (Nate Ryan | MPR File Photo)

I compare it to the Fillmore; you know, to me, it's one of those — it's the perfect-size venue, you know? It's not too big, it's not too small. And everybody's standing up. It's my favorite kind of venue to play. And there aren't that many of them left, you know, in that size. So I hope to God they're going to survive this horrible thing we're going through.

Yeah, me too. Me too. It's crazy; I mean, they haven't been open since March now.

I know. Yeah, we just had — Nashville just lost a venue, a smaller venue but legendary place, Douglas Corner, that's been there for 33 years. I read an article that they're closing.

Yeah, that's always sad.

Well, here in Minnesota, George Floyd's death is troubling all of us, and it's having a significant effect on our community and the nation, and we're all finding our own ways to understand what happened. For you, does songwriting help you process what's happening around you?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that's why I did this. You know, I wrote these songs because I care.

And I need to get it out of my system and all of that, and also, I care. You know, songs have always been a way — you know, the folk music that I started out listening to and, you know, even some of the old early country music, but, you know, I think a lot, I think back a lot on the early songs that Bob Dylan wrote, you know, and he was inspired of course by Woody Guthrie, and you know, there was Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger, and you know, everybody was writing these songs about what was going on in the world, you know? And I was used to hearing all that.

People would feel good; you'd listen to it and it gave you a sense of, you know, a kind of connection with other people and a sense of unity. We need these kinds of songs more.

I saw your tweet that you sent out for Bob Dylan on his birthday on hearing Highway 61 Revisited when you were 12.

Yes! That was the first Bob Dylan album that—

That was a big one for you!

Oh my god — a student of my dad's brought it over to the house, because you know, back then, when a new album would come out, it'd be like a big deal. It was like a celebration, you know? And I'd never heard Bob Dylan before; it was the first time that I'd ever heard him, and he — this student of my dad's — came over to meet with my dad, so they went in another room, and I put the album on, you know, on the turntable, and went, "Wow!" Even in my little 12-year-old brain, I knew something, I knew what was going on, you know. It was the — he had taken the traditional folk music that I'd been listening to, and then the literary stuff, you know, the lyrics from the poets and the literary crowd he hung out with. And for me, that would have been, you know, my dad and all of his writer friends. You know, I had come out of that whole traditional folk thing, so you know, it was like, "Wow, he put those two worlds together. This is amazing!"

Sure did.

From that moment on, I wanted to do that. (laughs) Or something like that! I didn't understand all the lyrics; that was back when he was being very mysterious, but, I got it, though.

Yeah, well, there's not a bad song on there. "Tombstone Blues," "Like a Rolling Stone," I mean, you can't go wrong with that stuff.

Yeah, what are you going to play for us next?

I'm going to play a song called "Big Black Train." And this is one that actually Tom had the idea for. When he approached me with it initially; I said, "Really? What? 'Big black train'? What in the world am I going to write, what am I going to say about a big, black train that hasn't been said over and over again for the last 200 years?"

And he said, "Well, this is a kind of different perspective on a train; this is more like the big, black train represents the black cloud of depression, you know, or the blues. And this is a train you don't want to get on."

Most of the train songs are songs about, you know, freedom train and all that, but this is a train you don't want to get on. But I was hesitant about it at first, but then I started working on it and something clicked, something magical happened. Now I love this song, and it moves me every time I sing it.

Yeah.

There's something about it. It's simple, but it works somehow.

It has a mournful tone.

Mm-hm. Yes, it's very mournful. Yeah.

[music: Lucinda Williams, "Big Black Train"]

Well, that was nice. Great vocal on that one; you knocked it out of the park, Lucinda.

Thank you. See, every time, I almost felt like crying at the end.

It's a very moving song. Thank you so much for that. The new album is called Good Souls Better Angels, and I sure appreciate you playing that one. Stay safe and healthy, Lucinda. It's been really nice chatting with you, and hope to see you, you know, relatively soon here in the Twin Cities.

Yeah. Are you from Canada?

No, I'm not. I'm from South Dakota, actually.

Oh, maybe that's what it is. I was kind of picking up a little Canadian.

I'll take that as a compliment, yeah.

Yes, it is.

I just want to send out, you know, respect and love and condolences, you know, to the family and everybody in Minneapolis who's been struggling with this last horrific act of racism. It's sad that it happened in Minneapolis because Minneapolis is a beautiful, open-minded city. But we just wanted to send that greeting out to everybody.

Thank you so much. Take care.

Thank you.

Best of luck to you.

Songs Performed


03:15 "You Can't Rule Me"
11:11 "Bad News Blues"
27:28 "Big Black Train"
All songs from Lucinda Williams' 2020 album, Good Souls Better Angels, available on Highway 20/Thirty Tigers.

Hosted by Bill DeVille
Produced by Jesse Wiza
Engineered by Erik Stromstad and Nate Ryan
Transcript & web production by Luke Taylor

External Link

Lucinda Williams - official site

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2 Photos

  • Lucinda Williams, 'Good Souls Better Angels'
    Lucinda Williams, 'Good Souls Better Angels' (Highway 20 Records)
  • Lucinda Williams press photo
    Lucinda Williams released her latest album, 'Good Souls Better Angels,' on April 24, 2020. (Danny Clinch)