Lucinda Williams, perhaps America's greatest songwriter for just over two decades, is coming to Wolf Trap in suburban Washington this week singing a different kind of blues. The bruised and aching heart that lies embedded in her greatest songs is still very much there, but a new, personal happiness, arising from her marriage to her manager Tom Overby in 2009, has allowed her to lift her artist's gaze to address the suffering going on in the world outside.
Her triumphant new album, Blessed, ranks with her very best work, and with the production help of Don Was her music sounds as good, if not better, as anything she's ever done.
Yet her albums, including this one, don't even begin to capture the overwhelming impact of her live performances, such as the one I saw in March at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 club. The trim, 58-year-old Lucinda had some of the rough shadings and cracks in her voice that make her so expressive, but she delivered with a new purity and power that made the audience that had taken her deep repertoire of literate songs into their hearts almost as giddy as teenyboppers at a Justin Bieber concert.
Watch, for instance, "World Without Tears" live:
At the Washington show, it was a mad love-fest between audience and performer that I've rarely seen outside of a Bruce Springsteen concert. Here at last was a baby-boomer, like many but hardly all in her diverse audience, singing and writing songs with an undiminished power that few of their other musical heroes could now match.
In an interview with Music and Musicians magazine she said simply, "I feel my voice is better than it's ever been." As Muhammad Ali once said, "It ain't bragging if it's true."
Known in part for heart-breaking ballads about lovers and friends who were killed or committed suicide, such as "Sweet Old World," "Drunken Angel," and "Pineola," she not only chronicles the loss of loved ones on her new album, including the masterpiece, "Copenhagen," about the death of a former manager, but also looks at the pain of everyone from dying soldiers to people living without hope. And she offers healing and promise with her compassionate new songs. One of those songs came relatively early in the set, and its slow, direct, blues-inflected plea cut through the audience like a knife. One can only imagine the impact it might have on an abused woman stuck at home or a runaway selling himself on the street or just a person grappling with loneliness. It's called "Born to Be Loved," and she sang plaintively in the opening, "You weren't born to be abandoned/You weren't born to be forsaken/You were born to be loved..."
So her broad palette of songwriting is now even more deeply infused with the feel of the blues that has always informed her work. Of course, her brand of eclectic Americana can't be pigeonholed into any one format or standard chord structure. Still, it's not well-known that her very first album, Ramblin', cut on Folkways in 1979 for about $250, had several blues covers, including Robert Johnson's "Rambling on My Mind."
She shows her deep ties to the blues -- her earliest musical love along with the songs of Bob Dylan -- in some of the metaphors she chooses, her taste in blues covers, including Howlin' Wolf's, "I Asked For Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)," and her eye for the landscapes and culture of the South, the original home of the blues.
Yet the Louisiana-born Williams had never even been to the Mississippi Delta or a juke joint when she wrote the song, "2 Kewl 2 Be 4-Gotten," inspired by a juke joint photo she saw. Her relationship to the bues was nonetheless so strong, and the devotion she inspires among critics and fans is so intense, that it inspired The New Yorker's Bill Buford to write a masterful portrait of her. He tells the back story behind her most mournful ballads, and opens the article with scenes of him visiting the sort of rural Delta clubs that shaped the blues and inspired Lucinda. The National Magazine Award-nominated article appeared in June, 2000, and was headlined, "Delta Nights: A singer's love affair with loss."
"The Delta has served Williams as highly personal, emotional reference library, something she keeps coming back to in her music, for images or metaphors, or, sometimes for its famous twelve-bar arrangements and its flattened blue notes...She gets stuck with knotty, contradictory labels, like the blackest white woman in Louisiana (or the white woman with a black man's soul), or Raymond Carver with a guitar (because of her stark narratives), or a female Hank Williams," Buford notes.
As Walt Whitman might have said, she contains multitudes, but she transcends any one musical label, which is one reason it took her so long to achieve commercial success -- with her Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998.
Yet the blues has-- regardless of the musical form she chose for each song --- seeped into her soul. So when she described that juke joint, it was with absolute authority:
In this dirty little joint
No dope smoking no beer sold after 12 o'clock
Rosedale Mississippi Magic City Juke Joint
Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar
Sold his soul to the devil so he can play guitar
Too cool to be forgotten
And when she chooses to perform a blues song, as she sometimes does in concert, she does so with an uncanny understanding of the song that unveils its emotional core, remains true to the Blues form , and yet somehow turns it into a Lucinda Williams song. Here's a brief snippet of her version of Skip James' "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues:"
It's an apt song for today's economic distress, and when she hums along it's a female version of Skip's mournful hum that can also send chills up your spine. She's one of a relative handful of white singers -- Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt are some others -- who can capture the resonance and emotional impact of blues and soul music without descending into mimicry.
At the same time, her performances are not all about heartache, and even when there's a deep sadness in some of her songs, it has the transformative effect of the blues itself. How could singing those sad songs make us all feel so good? One reason: She offers a kick-ass live show, propelled by a crack band, that draws on the best of all her songs and sings them with an intensity that's stunning. Always a cause for exultation in her audiences.
Women especially respond to songs that are kiss-off anthems to ex-lovers, although the lyrics are still sometimes mingled with regret over what's been lost. She draws on this sentiment in songs such as "Changed the Locks" and her new one, "Buttercup," aimed at an addict ex-boyfriend coming around again. It's her feminist update of one her favorite Bob Dylan songs, "Positively 4th Street," the sneering put-down of the folkies who felt abandoned by Dylan's rise. The crowd went wild when she sang over a bouncy roots rocker (quite different from the slow ballad on the original demo included on the expanded CD):
You talk about the junk you did,
Like you talk about climbing trees.
You look like a little kid,
With bruises on your knees.
You will never cop,
To the damage that's been done.
You will never stop,
Cos it's too much fun.
Now you want somebody to be your buttercup,
Good luck finding your buttercup.
She doesn't need him anymore, but her heart is still open to caring for the people in her life and those who haven't found the hard-won love, and even happiness, she has obtained so recently. She titled her second Folkways album Happy Woman Blues, and now, finally, she is coming to live out that aspiration without leaving the blues behind.
In interviews she's sought to address head-on the question that seems to fascinate critics and some of her fans: Can she continue to write great, moving songs of heartbreak and loss if she finds happiness in her personal life? As a Wall Street Journal critic notes:
She wonders if her satisfaction will confuse fans who have heard her songs about how, for her, love has often led to betrayal.
"I'm in such a different place now," said Ms. Williams, who is dressed in denim, her eyes raccoon-ringed with blue mascara. "I'm with Tom and I'm content that way. I've got much more freedom. I always wanted to write about something other than unrequited love. Unrequited-love songs are the easiest to write. I think I speak for all songwriters when I say that. I had to field these questions: 'Are you still going to be able to write?'" Ms. Williams then shrugged. "Everywhere I go, I'm picking things up. I'm like a sponge. People think all my songs are autobiographical. They aren't."
Even by her standards, "Blessed" is an extraordinary album, the best by a singer-songwriter in quite a long while...
Still, the notion that personal unhappiness was a necessary fuel for maintaining creative achievement was something that she once seemed to believe. During The New Yorker's 2000 profile, Buford witnessed a testy dispute between Williams and her then-boyfriend, bass player Richard Price in a New Orleans bar, with Williams anxious about how she hadn't written a new song in three years. (Since then, starting with 2001's Essence, though, she's been remarkably more prolific.) Buford writes:
The problem, it seemed, was that she was too happy. Richard didn't believe that this was a problem--happiness, he thought, was not a bad thing. But Lucinda wasn't listening. She was speaking longingly of her melancholy "Silver Lake period"-- the time when, fourteen years before, living in a downtown apartment in Los Angeles and, having just broken up with Clyde [Woodward, an alcoholic bass player who inspired "Lake Charles" ], alone, emotionally wounded, with little money and few distractions, she was focused and wrote some of her best songs, one after the other: "Crescent City," "Passionate Kisses, "Changed the Locks" and "Side of the Road"....
But now happily married, she still found herself writing songs in a spurt of creative energy. Music and Musicians magazine observed that she started composing songs for the new album in May of 2010, soon producing enough material for two albums -- and moving beyond just writing about unrequited love. "It's like I've been hibernating, and then once I get into that mode, I dive in," she said. "I'm more prolific now than I've ever been."
But now she was taking a broader view: "I grew up listening to Bob Dylan's songs, which were so majestic and so topical. I always wanted to write songs like 'Masters of War' or 'Times They Are A- Changin.' This album was an exercise in writing those kinds of songs." Indeed, for an encore, at the end of the Washington show in March, for instance, she gave a shout-out to the workers fighting against union-busting in Wisconsin, and launched into the Buffalo Spingfield's "For What It's Worth," with its intense images of protest:
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
There's battle lines being drawn
Yet it was quite fitting that she ended her set, before the encore, with the stirring title song, "Blessed," from her new album; it notices the everyday, unnoticed miracles that can give us grounds for optimism.
In some ways, it's a reverse, positive version of "A Hard Rain's Going to Fall," but which finds in her array of kaleidoscopic images -- although not as richly surrealistic or innovative as Dylan's song written in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis -- a reason for hope, not despair or terror:
We were blessed by the minister
Who practiced what he preached
We were blessed by the poor man
Who said heaven is within reach
We were blessed by the girl selling roses
Who showed us how to live
We were blessed by the neglected child
Who knew how to forgive
We were blessed by the battered woman
Who didn't seek revenge
We were blessed by the warrior
Who didn't need to win
We were blessed by the blind man
Who could see for miles and miles
We were blessed...
And the Washinton area's music community will be blessed when Lucinda Williams takes the stage this Tuesday at Wolf Trap to sing her unique, deeply felt songs that offer, in their own way, the redemptive power of the blues.