Lucinda Williams is no stranger to grief. The acclaimed singer-songwriter lost her mother in 2004. Her father, the poet Miller Williams, succumbed last year after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Those difficult events shadowed Williams’ recent life and served in part as emotional inspiration for her latest release, “The Ghosts of Highway 20.”
“My writing reflects how I’m feeling at any given time,” Williams says in her granular twang, calling from her home in Los Angeles. “Now that I’m older, I’ve suffered those losses and my songs are going to reflect that.”
Her new album takes its title from Interstate 20, a 1,500-mile highway that stretches from Texas to South Carolina and runs through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. That long strip of road holds early memories for Williams, from her nomadic childhood recollections of growing up in various Southern towns to her early years as a traveling musician building a career.
Today Williams is busier than ever. She’s recently back from Australia, Europe, two music cruises and a trip to New York for an appearance on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Her current tour has Williams booked for multiple-night runs in several cities. She’ll be accompanied by a well-oiled backing band featuring her long-running rhythm section of drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton. Guitarist Stuart Mathis, who did a stint in Jakob Dylan’s band the Wallflowers, will also be joining her.
Williams has plenty of new material to draw upon. One of the harrowing highlights of “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is “If My Love Could Kill,” a song about the emotional impact of her father’s debilitating disease. The genesis of the song occurred several years ago when Williams visited the ailing Miller Williams at his home in Arkansas. Sitting together and drinking wine at the end of the day, her father made a stark admission.
“He just said matter-of-factly, ‘Honey, I can’t write poetry anymore,’” Williams recalls. “I was shocked. I started sobbing. I fell apart. I couldn’t believe it. There was my father, sitting right next to me, and his whole identity had been erased.”
After his death she found it cathartic to write a song that gave voice to her tumultuous feelings. In the lyrics, she longs to kill the disease that “robbed me of your memory / robbed me of your time / made her way into the symphony / of your beautiful mind.”
“That’s what ‘If My Love Could Kill’ is about,” Williams says. “I was so angry I decided to personify the disease itself, because the disease is a thief. It’s a murderer.”
Miller Williams was a literature professor who earned a serious reputation as a poet. In 1997, he was featured prominently in the national spotlight when he read one of his poems at Bill Clinton’s second presidential inauguration. Early in his career, Miller Williams moved frequently for work and taught at a number of colleges before joining the English department at the University of Arkansas in the early 1970s.
During her father’s work assignments in southern towns, the young Lucinda soaked up the atmosphere. She started school in Macon, Ga. Soon after she tagged along with her father when he went to visit his friend and mentor Flannery O’Connor at her home in Milledgeville, Ga. The iconic American author influenced both father and daughter.
“My dad said Flannery was his greatest teacher,” Williams recalls. “She was one of the first people to encourage him to pursue writing poetry. When I was a teenager, I read all the Southern Gothic stuff — Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty. That informs my songwriting.”
Her father’s approach to writing also had an impact on Williams’ style.
“My dad was always very emphatic about the importance of the listener,” she says. “You have to respect the listener. Get outside of yourself as a writer and imagine that you’re listening to what you’ve just written. Make it so people don’t have to have a master’s degree in literature to understand the poem. That’s how my songs are. I approach songwriting from that perspective.”
Williams grew up steeped in a world of books and music. She recalls the literary parties her father and other poets in the community would host for visiting writers.
“I had been at those parties and let me tell you — they rivaled any rock ‘n’ roll party,” she says with a laugh. “The poets were hard drinkers and smokers, which is why most of them are gone now. They would stay up ‘til all hours of the night talking about literature and jazz. I soaked that up. I met a lot of amazing writers. At some of those parties, my dad would say, ‘Honey, go get your guitar and play some songs.’ The poets would encourage me. They’d say, ‘Just keep going. You’ve got a lot of soul.’ They knew I wasn’t totally developed yet, but they could hear something.”
Williams’ new album is co-produced by her husband and manager, Tom Overby, a former executive with Universal Music Group. The two were married onstage in 2009 during a show in Minneapolis. The funny and touching nuptials are preserved for posterity in a YouTube video.
Williams says even she was initially surprised that she fell for Overby. “If you had told me that I was going to (be with) a record company guy — the enemy — I would have said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Because all my boyfriends were these rock ‘n’ roll bad boys. They were all younger with motorcycle boots and chains. Then I meet the record company guy.”
The two hit it off despite being on opposite sides of the business.
“We were both in music, but in different arenas of it,” she says. “We found we had a lot in common. We appreciate a lot of the same things. He’s highly intelligent. That’s the erotic appeal for me — highly intelligent bordering on genius. That wasn’t the case with most of those bad boy rock ‘n’ rollers.”
The two are partners in life and music, traveling together and collaborating on projects. Williams says she’d always hoped to find the ideal relationship that would allow her to continue to flourish as an artist.
“It took me a long time to find the right person I could live with and still create,” she says. “I always had this dream that there had to be that person, my soul mate. Deep down inside I always believed it could happen.”