Lucinda Williams has received the most extreme reviews of just about any artist over her past 16 album career. She has been praised as the Queen of Americana who almost single-handedly founded the genre and created its finest recordings. Williams has also been lambasted as country blues rock’s worst practitioner with a lousy voice and mediocre songwriting talent. Both sides have been able to defend their positions with loaded language and specific examples. One is tempted to say the truth may lie somewhere in the middle: sometimes she’s great, and sometimes not. But that would not be accurate.
Williams is a true artist who takes risks. Sometimes the results pay off, and other times they may not, but she is always creative and inspired. Much of the criticism seems sexist and reactionary. Can one imagine someone like Neil Young being dismissed because of albums like Reactor, Are You Passionate? and other lesser titles? Williams has recently had a tough life because of circumstances beyond her control. She lost her new home to a storm, had a stroke that left her unable to walk or play guitar (which persists), and had a myriad of other concerns.
More recently, Williams has gotten stronger and started to tour again. With the help of her husband Tom Overby and others, including songwriter Jesse Malin, road manager Travis Stephens, co-producer and engineer Ray Kennedy, guitarist Stuart Mathis, drummer Steve Ferrone, keyboardist Reese Wynans, bassist Steve Mackey, and pedal steel and guitarist Doug Pettibone, she’s released a new record, Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart. Guest stars include such notables as Bruce Springsteen, Margo Price, Angel Olsen, Buddy Miller, and others. The album has the aura of coronation about it, as if she’s announcing her return to the throne.
Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart begins with a look backward and forward with “Let’s Get the Band Back Together”, a rollicking number that brings the good old days into the present. It’s a noisy barroom ballad. Think of Tom Petty and Mudcrutch. Petty was a friend and influence whose spirit is noted later in the song “Stolen Moments” with its shaggy Southern rock guitar lines.
Springsteen makes his appearance known on “New York Comeback and the title tune. He croons about the Big Apple audience as a jaded observer who still believes if one can make it there, one can make it anywhere. (The ghost of Sinatra is never too far behind The Boss’s vocals.) “Stories From a Rock N Roll Heart” rocks harder. Springsteen and Scialfa help punch out the sentiments just by adding “yeah yeah yeah” at the right moments to show the spirit can be more important than the actual words and music when delivered with flair.
Margo Price and Angel Olson separately offer significant vocal contributions. On “This Is Not My City”, Williams sings about feeling alone in one’s former hometown over a B3 organ sound reminiscent of the Doors classic “People Are Strange” while Price offers a ghostly echo. Similarly, Olsen helps turn the primarily acoustic “Jukebox” into a weepy, drunken country tribute to past masters. She becomes Wiliams’ inner voice while Williams submits to the charms of Patsy Cline and Muddy Waters on the Wurlitzer.
Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart ends with “Never Gonna Fade Away”. Like Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, and other rockers before her, Williams proclaims allegiance to ROCK. She clearly announces that she’s not going gently into that good night. She may feel burned out, but she still wants to get higher. She refuses to give up without a fight. She’s the same as she ever was, goddamnit. All hail the queen.