Lucinda Williams drives “West,” her latest confessional opus, through a path paved in ditches and dead ends. She could’ve stalled. Instead, the musician cruises down a road resurfaced with optimism.
“A lot of positive changes happened to me out here,” Williams reveals about the album’s title.
On her latest, the alt-country guitar gal paints a vivid picture of her painful avalanche, suffering from her mother’s death and a broken relationship. As evident through the titles of the raw collection’s cuts – “Fancy Funeral,” “Are You Alright?” and “Mama You Sweet” – Williams needed this album.
“The songs deal with a chapter in my life and they definitely tell a story,” Williams says. “It’s probably been the most prolific time in my life as a writer. I’d been through so many changes … so obviously there’s a lot of pain and struggling, but it ends with a look towards the future.”
The songwriting soothes; the melodies linger. Williams’ ability to unclothe her heart and wrap her naked lyrics around us has earned her overwhelming praise (TIME named her “America’s Best Songwriter” in 2002). On her ninth album, which follows 2003’s “World Without Tears,” she’s more focused, more forlorn and even more fearless.
“Some people find the honesty in my songs disturbing,” she says. “They say, ‘How can you put yourself out there like that? Aren’t you scared?’ No, it just comes naturally to me. I don’t like to put anything or anyone in a box. The race thing, the gay thing – these are multidimensional topics too. My role as an artist is to portray that diversity.”
Williams isn’t an alien to the queer crowd, and her shows generally attract a mishmash of folks. “Girls with girls, guys with guys, girls with guys. But I don’t know what everyone’s sexual preference is. I haven’t taken a poll,” she laughs.
It’s the pain that pours from her tunes, the same suffering she seems to enshroud herself in, that streams through the rest of us – no matter who we are. Williams grew up in a diverse area in Arkansas where there was a strong gay presence; and though the South gets a bad rap for racism, the musician’s college town challenges that.
“Unfortunately, that stereotype still exists – with good reason. But the South has always been seen as more racist than homophobic, but frankly, I’ve seen a lot of racism all over the country,” she says.
Growing up, Williams’ father, a poet and literature professor, knew people who were gay. As a teenager, the singer-songwriter fancied a guy who didn’t reciprocate that feeling. “I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t interested in me. My dad tried to explain to me why – it never occurred to me that he was gay. My little 16-year-old mind! We were like buddies, but I wanted him to be more than that.”
Now 54, she’s found a beau who doesn’t dig men. Williams, who’s living in California, is engaged, but he’s not that “macho bad-boy type.”
Her fiance, who suggested Williams spin guitarist Bill Frisell, turned her on to Hal Willner, who worked with Frisell and co-produced “West.” Willner’s tastes are more avant-garde, she notes, but he still gets roots music.
There’s no doubt that the emotionally laced ditties they’ve mined are medicine, like Williams’ extensive catalog, that will either allow listeners to drown in its sorrow or shake off a load. Of course, not literally – except for during a show at the House of Blues in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“A woman in the audience started masturbating during the song ‘Essence,'” she recalls about performing the flirty love tune.
The cops were called.
“She got angry because she wanted to finish,” Williams says. “It was probably one of the strangest stories I’ve heard from the stage.”
8 p.m. April 15
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor