Lucinda Williams is staying in motion. Her upcoming show at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall is just the beginning of a tour that will take her from the Southeastern U.S. up to Canada. Williams’ latest record, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, the flagship release on her new Highway 20 Records label, is her first double album. And the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter continues to defy categories and labels faster than they can be applied.
Thirty years ago, Williams was considered a folk/blues singer. After artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Petty and Emmylou Harris began covering Williams’ songs in the early ’90s, she was considered a pioneer of alt-country. Since 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she’s been routinely emblazoned with the Americana tag, a particularly frustrating description since it could describe anyone from Alison Krauss and Wilco to earlier performers such as Townes Van Zandt and even The Holy Modal Rounders.
As long as people listen to the music instead of read the labels, Williams seems indifferent to the ever-shifting branding. “I used to say that I just wanted to be an entity, kind of like Bob Dylan,” Williams told Folio Weekly from her Los Angeles home. “He isn’t country, he isn’t rock, he’s Bob Dylan.”She laughs. “Now I usually just say I play ‘roots rock,’ but now I’m digging this new term they’re throwing around called ‘country soul.'”
Williams acknowledges that the songs on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone were born from her love of the Muscle Shoals sound of the ’60s and albums like Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.
“To me, music has to have a base of the blues,” she says. “It’s gotta have that in its roots.”
Yet the writing on some of her latest material was kicked off by some decidedly pop music.
“One of the things that kind of gave me a hint that I might be able to do this was when I went to this place called the Hotel Café here in L.A. They feature a lot of new songwriters in a small, cool listening room. This one guy played, Ryan Tedder, and he wrote or co-wrote ‘Rumor Has It’ on that Adele album,” Williams says. “He played that tune and it was amazing how incredible it sounded stripped down compared to the version on her album. Something clicked in my head and I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’ It inspired me. You never hear these pop songs stripped down, and it becomes intimidating when you think, ‘How did they create this?’ And I after I left that gig, I started writing on the new album.”
The tunes on Spirit run the gamut from barnburner rock to laid-back soul. The R&B swagger of “Protection” and bluesy crunch of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” are met in kind by the meditative ballad “When I Look at the World” and the elegiac “Compassion,” the album’s lead-in track, which features just Williams on acoustic guitar and vocals. “Compassion” was adapted from a poem of the same name by Williams’ father, Miller Williams. “It’s something I wanted to do for a long time, and I worked on it a couple of days and came up with something,” she says. “I cut it almost a demo with just me and guitar with the intention of fleshing it out into a lush, Nick Drake-like vibe. But after I laid it down, [co-producer] Greg Leisz urged me to just leave it alone.” (On New Year’s Day, Miller Williams passed away at age 84.)
On the album, Williams is joined by some heavy-hitters, including longtime Elvis Costello rhythm section Pete Thomas and Davey Faragh, guitarists Bill Frisell and Tony Joe White, and The Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. “I knew him before and he just loved to play and collaborate with different people,” says Williams of McLagan, who passed away on Dec. 3. “He was great to work with because he was so happy and ‘up,’ and I was surely a great fan of him as a musician and just thought he was a fantastic person.” A total of 20 players are featured on the album, co-produced by Williams along with Leisz and her husband and manager, Tom Overby. “Recording, for me, has always been a very democratic process. I like everybody to get involved, and that’s how this was,” explains Williams. “We broke a couple rules: We made a double album, the first song is a ballad, and some of the songs are pretty long for radio. But you know, I’m an Allman Brothers fan, so I love those extended guitar solos, so nothing’s too long for me.”
Williams remains an eternal and erudite fan of music; during our hour-long talk, she praises The Kenneth Brian Band, her opening act for this leg of her tour, along with artists as diverse as progressive hip-hop group Atmosphere, southern R&B polymath Dan Penn, ’60s rockers Buffalo Springfield and free jazz overlord Sun Ra. This appreciation of a wide-ranging array of music by fellow artists who are equally hard to pin down seems like a kind of reflection of her own career, a creative journey that keeps her just in the range of the ever-shifting pop music radar.
And Williams seems fine with that indefinable position. “I was looking on Amazon and saw this review that someone wrote where they said they thought the new album was depressing. And I thought, ‘Really?’ This is one of the most upbeat things I’ve done,” says Williams. “All of my songs have been like that, even the darker ones. I’m trying to get a message across and I don’t know why some people don’t understand that. I don’t like homogenized, sugarcoated music. I think that some of my songs push people’s buttons — and they don’t want those buttons pushed. And I like pushing people’s buttons.”