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29 June 2023

Lucinda Williams: “Poor women? After a while that becomes ridiculous”

The songwriter on her stroke, country vs rock, and why she hates “feminists in music using the fact that they’re women as a reason why they didn’t get a hit”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Lucinda Williams had a stroke in November 2020, she hoped “some grand, majestic, spiritual thing would come swooping down and make everything OK again”. Then 67, the three-time Grammy Award winner and country-rock legend was left unable to play guitar, an instrument that had been a constant in her life since she was 12. But no spiritual being came to save her. “Life doesn’t work that way,” she said in her nasal southern US drawl.

That hasn’t stopped Williams, now 70. Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, her 15th album, is released on 30 June. It’s the first on which she doesn’t play guitar, though she remains the primary songwriter and lead vocalist. A team of collaborators, including her husband and manager Tom Overby, her tour manager Travis Stephens, and her friend Jesse Malin, took over the guitar-playing and helped with production. She is also joined by a star-studded cast of backing vocalists: Bruce Springsteen, Margo Price, Angel Olsen.

When we met in the bar of a central London hotel on a sweltering June afternoon, I saw that the stroke had made it difficult for her to walk. It takes fortitude to carry on with an international touring career after such a setback, I said once she had made her way on to a sofa in a sunny window spot. She brushed it off, crediting Overby, sat at a nearby table, who pushes her to keep going.

Gesturing towards her assistant, next to Overby, she pulled me close and whispered into my ear. “My assistant… I wish I could tell him not to wear shorts. In London, it’s not… I wish I could say, ‘You need to put some long pants on.’ But I don’t dare tell him.”

Williams herself wore a denim jacket, blue jeans and Converse trainers, with a slogan T-shirt reading: “File under rock.” “It goes back to that whole thing of how my music falls in the cracks between country and rock,” she explained, a glass of pinot noir in hand. “Tom had these made up. I don’t particularly like wearing my own T-shirts advertising myself, but Tom likes me to wear them.”

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In 1979 and 1980 Williams recorded two albums of folk and country standards. They were well received within the industry but didn’t make a mark commercially, and anyway, Williams wanted to write her own songs. Every label she approached in the 1980s rejected her, not knowing what to do with her distinctive voice and blues-inspired rock – until she was signed by Rough Trade Records in London, then known as a stronghold of punk.

Her self-titled first album of original songs was released in 1988 and featured the rousing “Passionate Kisses”, which remains one of her best-known tracks. She built a following among other musicians, and artists such as Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty covered her songs. A decade later, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road won her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and cemented her reputation as a great American songwriter. She has since toured with Bob Dylan and duetted with Elvis Costello.

[See also: Congratulations on being the Universal Woman – now leave the rest of us alone]

Persistence is a theme of Williams’s life. Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1953, she lived in 12 cities and three countries before she was 18. Her mother, Lucille, experienced manic depression and schizophrenic tendencies, and so Williams and her two siblings were raised mostly by their father, Miller.

A poet and university professor who would go on to read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997, he introduced Williams to the world of literature through “osmosis”, she said, smiling. She didn’t finish high school, but the creative writing workshops her father held at home were an education beyond the classroom, as were the wild parties that descended afterwards. Charles Bukowski was known to attend, while her father described Flannery O’Connor as “his greatest teacher”, she said.

As a teenager, Williams became enamoured with O’Connor’s depictions of the grotesque characters and southern settings she had grown up around. Later, she realised that the trauma of her childhood – the constant moving, her mother’s mental illness, the friends and family members lost to suicide – was an unconscious constant in her songwriting, giving her music a dark edge. “The southern gothic was my everyday life,” she writes in her recent memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You.

Until his death in 2015, Williams would often send her father drafts of her song lyrics. “I still liked to know what he thought about my writing. I wanted his approval, as an artist and a writer. And I wanted daddy’s approval, you know,” she giggled, suddenly childlike. “Who are we kidding? There’s always that.”

[See also: Susan Sontag’s women problem]

Since the mid-1980s, Williams has moved between Los Angeles and Nashville, where she and Overby live today. It is the home of the country music scene that wasn’t interested in her work in the 1980s. “I wanted to rock way before I was able to,” she writes in her memoir.

The artists she loved in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t seem concerned with genre in the way the labels she encountered were. “Bob Dylan did Nashville Skyline and nobody said, ‘Oh, it’s country!’ They just said: ‘It’s Bob Dylan.’ That’s what I aspired to.”

I asked if she thought her gender – and the way in which the music industry markets female musicians – played a role in this categorisation. She interjected: “I keep getting asked that question, over and over, and I understand why the question is being asked, because it’s the topic of the day. And there is a lot of talk that country radio doesn’t play as many female artists as male artists. And I don’t know. I don’t keep track of the numbers.

“Maybe I’m naive, but I used to believe then, and I still do now, that the cream rises to the top. And if you’re good enough, that’s what gets you in the door – not what sex you are. Did it never occur to people that maybe they don’t like the music? I hate to say it.”

I suggested that if there seemed to be fewer talented female musicians, that is because of the pipeline problem: that girls aren’t encouraged to pick up instruments in the same way as boys, that the industry doesn’t invest in young female talent, that women aren’t deemed influential enough for headline festival slots.

She disagreed: “At some point we have to take responsibility, otherwise everything is going to get blamed on being a woman or being a man, being a dinosaur,” Williams said. “‘Poor women! They didn’t get encouraged by their fathers!’ After a while it just becomes ridiculous. I see it as fair game… I can do what any guy can do as an artist.”

Williams knew she was at odds with contemporary conversations about industry sexism. She occasionally hid her face behind her hands, wincing. But she kept on. “I know there are asshole, horrible men in the music business. I’ve certainly encountered that, but the level to which these conversations go – because you’re a woman you’re not getting the same commercial business treatment that a man would get? Wow! OK, we’re gonna have to pull the plug [on the industry] and start all over again.

“It’s almost like reverse sexism in a way, because if you can use the fact that you’re a woman to be at a disadvantage, then where does the role of competition come in? I want to be judged for my skills and my art. I don’t know, see, I’m digging myself a hole… My husband is so smart, that’s why I fell in love with him. He’s got one of those kinds of brains. He could say it in an instant.

“I mean, of course I understand sexism. I consider myself a feminist and all those titles and everything. But at the same time, I don’t like feminists in music using the fact that they’re women as a reason why they didn’t get a hit.”

I made a last attempt to present the argument from the other side. “I love how you say ‘playing devil’s advocate’!” she said, grabbing hold of my hand. “Bless your heart. You’re so sweet. You remind me of someone from a different era, almost. Has anybody ever said that? Someone like Emily Dickinson.” I grimaced. “No, I mean that in every respectable term… You just have a perfect complexion, rosy cheeks. But I see the little punk in you!”

I changed the subject. What music does Lucinda Williams listen to now, in her seventies? She’s a fan of the Brooklyn-based Steve Gunn. “I like the guitar-playing, the songs and his voice. And he’s attractive! Yeah, God, if you see his photograph on the album, you know,” her eyes widened, “that’s what always pulls me in.”

She loves Sharon Van Etten, too, with her “biting” lyrics. She broke into a rendition of one of Van Etten’s songs. “Every time the sun comes up,” Williams sang knowingly, “I’m in trouble.”

“Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart” is released on Highway 20 Records. “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You” is published by Simon & Schuster.

[See also: Have the Conservatives done enough for women?]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia