Lucinda Williams reigns as Queen of rock, blues and soul

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams

“You Can’t Rule Me” was the perfect song for the third night of the GOP convention

On the evening of Wednesday, August 26, the third night of the Republican National Convention took place. Close on its heels was the distinctly American sound of singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams.

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was the first guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But closing out the night was Williams with a performance of “You Can’t Rule Me,” an anthemic rebuke to the fear-mongering far right.

“You might expect me to follow/But I ain’t gonna fall in line/I tell you what, this much I know/The dotted line ain’t been signed/You can’t rule me/You can’t rule me/You can’t take my soul and try to rule me, too…”

The song is the opening salvo from her punchy new album Good Souls Better Angels—as perfect a soundtrack to the troubled state of the world as one could imagine in 2020. It works as a Trojan horse to lure in the uninitiated while remaining unmistakably Lucinda Williams in theme and attitude.

Faced with the prospect of holding the music back for a more auspicious time or releasing it at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, Williams chose the latter. One listen makes it clear she chose wisely. Good Souls Better Angels shimmers and explodes with anger directed at dirty politicians, men who perpetrate violence against women and the callousness of the one percent. Her touring band Buick 6 backs her with a sound so blistering and immediate that it sounds like they are playing in a nearby garage, shaking plaster from the walls. She throws the venom and frustration into sharp relief with the calming, velvety “When the Way Gets Dark.”

Williams is an industry veteran with over a dozen albums to her credit and the respect of her peers, with multiple Grammy awards and one album—1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—which was considered a classic almost the instant it was released. Time Magazine even called her “America’s best songwriter.”

Like most rebels, Williams didn’t find success easily. After making recordings now considered seminal classics, she worked as a clerk in a bookstore. With a sound that falls between the cracks of rock, blues and country, she was routinely passed over by record companies who told her she was unmarketable. Now that sound has a nameAmericanaand she is considered the queen of it. When she finally hit a streak of commercial success in the late 90s she had a wealth of colleagues in the industrymany of whom had covered her materialrooting for her. She has released critically-acclaimed albums and toured consistently ever since.

Scanning the crowds of her concerts holds one surprisethough it’s often an uphill climb to get straight men to take female artists seriously, Williams has a great deal of them in her fan base. They can always be found in her crowds—sensitive, heart-on-sleeve, artistic types secure in their masculinity who have seen her frequently and exalt her recordings.

It’s actually not hard to see why they love Williams. At first glance she has the grit of someone who has been through shit and lived to talk about itlike she’s hitched many rides on the backs of motorcyclesyet there is a font of compassion and vulnerability underlying it which she bears to the world with an alarming (and seductive) lack of shame. She filters it through technical mastery and a steely veneer, avoiding the Lilith Fair ethos to which straight men generally can’t relate. She reveals so muchincluding the deep, dark, funk most keep firmly out of sightwith a sharp poet’s eye.

These are some of the many reasons LGBT listeners would also love Williams. She’s badass yet raw as a leaf in the wind, sometimes in the space of one song, walking in the dark alleys of life and reporting back with observations that grow richer with time. In concert, it’s not unusual to see her sing of the need to excoriate political corruption or “Get Right with God” before rocking out to the glory of her lover’s “honey” all over heron her tummy, in her hair. She will deliver a meditation on rip-your-guts-out, face-over-the-porcelain heartbreak, then sing of unbridled, all-consuming lustthe kind of hurts-so-good romance that takes us for a blissful ride before the inevitable crash, with passion we just can’t resist. She talks of sexuality and desire with a frankness for which women are often shamed, especially as they age, and has faced criticism unbowed.

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams

If so many LGBT listenersgay men especiallyworship Stevie Nicks, value the emotional gut-punch of Sia and revere the raw power of Janis Joplinwhy aren’t more of them aware of Williams? She checks the same boxes that have made those ladies gay icons and more besides.

Williams – who plays Asbury Park’s Convention Hall April 23 – made time to chat with me from her home in Nashville about the new album, the challenge of promoting it without touring, her LGBT fans and the evolution of her style.

You can tour whenever you want, and legends like Willie Nelson and Tom Petty have praised you and recorded your songs, yet you’re not a household name. Could that be a blessing in disguise?

Lucinda Williams: Now that I’ve done this as long as I have and seen what happens when you get more famous I do see it as a kind of blessing in disguise. When I started making albums I never got into videos and stuff, but some of the label people would say “we should make a video for such and such song” and it was never the video I wanted to make. I didn’t want to do one of those silly, stupid videos that you see. If I was going to make a video the only place they’d play it was on CMT, and you’ve seen those videos…they all kind of look the same, with the cowboy boots and pickup trucks. Also, with commercial radio, if you didn’t get played, you weren’t going to be a household name. This was before Sirius XM and all that. You could get a cult following and hopefully grow from there. There weren’t many places for artists like me when I started out. You could say I was on the fringes, but it was really a whole “I don’t care if I fit into that world” kind of thing.

Is it fair to say you should be included in the conversation with Bob Dylan or Neil Young but aren’t because you’re a woman?

LW: Well, if they started out at the same time they probably would have had just as hard a time as I did. By the time I got signed in the late 80s the music industry was a lot less open. Look, we live in a sexist society. That’s a given whether you’re in the music industry or not. I don’t know how it’s affected my career. I just plowed through. A lot of times I’d be the only woman in a group of guys, but just like anything else if you want to do something you just go ahead and do it. I got those comments in the early days like “you’re pretty good for a chick” but I didn’t throw myself into that world where I had to worry about wearing tight dresses or uncomfortable high heels. That wasn’t my thing. Like Patti Smith or Chrissie Hynde…those were the women I looked up to.

Certainly you have many qualities that the LGBT community loves in an artist. You blend strength and vulnerability in a way that they become one and the same thing, which is very empowering for people to experience. Have you pondered that segment of your audience?

LW: I have. I mean, I like to think I have a lesbian following. I can tell when I see the girls hanging out together in the front row. I like to think [LGBT people] are at my shows, but having gay women at my shows makes total sense. My music transcends gender. When you wanted to talk to me I thought “oh, this is interesting” because it never occurred to me not as many gay men or women might not know about me… I just do what I do. It doesn’t surprise me that women in general would be drawn to what quality I have in me, but for the most part my songs can be applied to different people, different genders, and I want it to be like that. My music is pretty gender-free.

Critics have talked about how uncompromising you are, that one can feel drained at the end of a Lucinda Williams album…

LW: (Laughs) I’m sorry!

No, but that’s true, you can be very tough in your subject matter, and that doesn’t preclude gay fans at all. We love Billie Holiday, Chrissie Hynde. We love Stevie Nicks and she’s considered a huge gay icon. They’re rough around the edges and beloved for it. Why shouldn’t their fans love you? They just need to know who you are.

LW: Maybe I don’t have enough flourish or something. Not wearing the clothes like Stevie Nicks wears, you know – the long, flowing dresses and twirling around…but then I thought, well, Joni Mitchell has a large gay fan base…

Cover of Lucinda Williams new album "Good Souls Better Angels"
Cover of Lucinda Williams new album “Good Souls Better Angels”

Oh, right, she does.

LW: Right, so see, every time you think “oh, this is why” there’s something else that makes it hard to figure out, because Joni’s stuff is real serious. I mean, maybe certain artists have a bigger gay fan base because of a theatrical kind of thing, like Judy Garland. Did you see the film with Renee [Zellweger]?

Yes, did you like it?

LW: I thought it was great. And they point to that in the film, of course. Does being a gay man mean you’re drawn to a certain style of music? There’s a question for you. (Laughs)

Well, I’d say no size fits all, but you exist outside of conventions and I think that’s one reason LGBT listeners would appreciate you.

LW: I think it has more to do with they just haven’t heard my music yet, that I’m not in the world of the music they’re listening to. It might just come down to more people know about Sheryl Crow than know about me. Who knows?

Many LGBT people heard your song “Like a Rose” [from her 1988 self-titled album] when it was used to parallel the transformation of the lead character in the 2005 film Transamerica as she undergoes sexual reassignment surgery. How did that come about?

LW: Wow! I didn’t even know about [the film]. Now that I think about it, I remember someone mentioning how the song could be interpreted that way and thinking “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that!” And now to hear it was used that way in that film…that’s fascinating. I’m honored to know that. I have to see it!

Good versus evil is such a big theme on Good Souls Better Angels. Is it uncanny timing that this album reflects our dark times and divisive politics, or is it that life is just cyclical and these things are always with us?

LW: What’s going on now around us… talk about draining! It’s everywhere – the same news over and over again. Then there’s that monster in the White House…so that was definitely at the forefront of my creative thinking as I was in the process of writing. I want to have these songs out there right now. I needed to do this. It became clear that all these songs fit together really well. It was a fairly organic process. I was going to bring in additional instruments and have people sing harmonies…but finally we all just looked at each other and said “You know what, there’s something here that really works…let’s just leave it alone and let it breathe” and that was such a liberating feeling.

You sound like a woman possessed on “Bone of Contention” as you condemn enemies of all kinds – especially crooked politicians who sow division and feign piety to claim the moral high ground. It’s such a loaded song. How did it come about?

LW: Actually, it was an earlier song that I never used, and my husband Tom reminded me about it and I said “Oh my God, that’s perfect for right now!” It sounds like I could have written it yesterday. This stuff is at the forefront of my brain and everybody else’s. People are angry and frustrated. Little did I know the pandemic was gonna hit. When we were asked about pushing back the release date from April 24 we said “Hell no!” and there probably couldn’t have been a better time to release it. It was a boost to hear people saying “Thanks, I needed this.” Of course, not everybody said that… (Laughs)

You have gotten some backlash for your politics this time.

LW: Yeah. Especially for “Man Without a Soul” about you-know-who. I usually don’t read comments, but this one guy said he was a fan of my music and said “Wow, I thought she was a compassionate person,” like I had crossed over a line. It sort of attacked my character. As a matter of fact, the reason I wrote and recorded this stuff is because I care. I am compassionate. And if you’re a fan, why would you be surprised? If people don’t know where I stand at this point they ain’t listening! (Laughs)

Wakin’ Up is one of the most shocking songs you’ve made, with details of domestic abuse that hit like a gut-punch. Is it autobiographical?

LW: Yeah. This guy’s drink of choice was whiskey. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He would become so mentally and physically abusive. He would do things very suddenly. I remember sitting on the counter stool in his kitchen and he just pulled it right out from under me, and I included that image in the song. “Took a piss on me.” That all happened. Then the next day I would tell him what he did and he wouldn’t remember. People on the outside would say “Why doesn’t she just leave?” It’s almost like you become numb [to the abuse]. He would be really remorseful and tell me he loved me and we could work it out. I used to think “Oh, I’m a strong woman; I’ll never let that happen to me.” I’m proud of that song, because it comes out forcefully. The rage comes out. I was so joyful listening back to it thinking “God damn this sounds great!” It’s so in-your-face. One really famous rock artist who visited me said “I don’t know…maybe put it out separately” but the guys in my band were really supportive and said “No, Lu, you gotta put that on the record.”

We lost two great artists to the Coronavirus – John Prine and Hal Wilner—who were not only colleagues of yours but friends. What do you want people to know about them?

LW: Tom and I found out about both of their passing the same day. It wasneedless to sayan incredibly heavy, dauntingly sad day. One of my favorite stories is when John and me tried to write a song together. We went to his studio. I thought “I’ll bring in a song I’m already working on” and John came up with a couple of great lines…for a John Prine song! He has such an inimitable sound that when you read one of his lines you know it’s John Prine. We stayed up all night talking and laughing. He had such a wry, dry sense of humor. So warm, funny and smart. He was real. He was the real thing. And Halwe made the West album togetherhe was one of a kind. So talented and smart, and yet like a big kid. One of those people who lives for his art. I just worked with him on a tribute album coming out soon for T. Rex [Angelheaded Hipster, released Sept. 4] where I did a version of the song “Life’s a Gas.” I’m glad we did that and that Tom and I got to see him.

Since you found happiness with Tom and married many critics and even some fans asked if you’d still be able to write music. Is it fair to say you’ve set them straight on that?

LW: Oh God! This one guy asked me “The fans are wondering ‘Are you still gonna be able to write songs?’” and I almost dropped the phone. It’s such an inane, stupid question. Art is about self-expression. Why would I stop because I found my soulmate? That doesn’t stop my art. That’s not to say that my marriage to Tom is less important than my art, but my art is fucking important, and he knows that. This first happened around when “Little Honey” came out and people thought all the songs were about him. It’s probably not one of my better records, but it’s got some good stuff on it…

Rarity” and “Plan to Marry” are some of my favorites on it…

LW: “Plan to Marry!” There were gay men who were getting married at one of my concerts a few years ago and they requested that song! They wanted me to dedicate it to them so I did. That was a special moment.

How do you want to be remembered, Lucinda?

LW: I’d like to be remembered as a great artist and a compassionate person. I’m really the same girl I always was. You have to stay in touch with that part of yourself. At the risk of sounding overly flowery, your inner child is so important. Without it you get jaded and cynical, and that’s the kiss of death. I’d like to be remembered as that same little girl with a guitar who started out when she 12 years old. She’s still here.