Lucinda Williams on Slaying Trump Trolls and Writing Some of Her Most Powerful Music Yet
The famed singer-songwriter opens up to David Yaffe about her excellent new album “Good Souls, Better Angels,” her Trump tune (“Man Without a Soul”), and much more.
Bad news on my TV screen / Bad news on the magazines / Bad news on the newspaper / Bad news on the elevator.
So begins Lucinda Williams’s “Bad News Blues,” from her extraordinary new album Good Souls, Better Angels. As usual, she’s reading our minds, our emotions, our souls. Williams’ new album is so full of darkness, it feels made for our current world of social distancing and exasperation. There are songs of despair, abusive relationships—a past one with an ex-boyfriend (“Wakin’ Up”) and another one with our current president (“Man Without a Soul,” “You Can’t Rule Me,” “Bad News Blues.”). Make a shortlist of the greatest living songwriters; for me, she makes it every time.
We are living in bleak times, but only she knows how to write a Lucinda Williams song about it. Just as Woody Guthrie carried a guitar case that said, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” Williams is ready for battle, too, even if she offends some fans. She spoke with me by phone, from her quarantined exile in Nashville.
How is your mood these days?
Actually pretty good. My days have been filled with doing press, and I’ve already done three of those video things. I’m actually feeling OK. I’m self-employed, so when I’m not on the road, I’m used to being at home. I’m kind of an indoorsy person anyway.
Do you find it shocking going to the grocery store and seeing everyone with masks?
I haven’t left the house since March 9.
I get up late, I stay up late, so that shortens the day right there. I do phone interviews, I check my emails, and drop off wine. We just moved into this little house in East Nashville, so I’ve been looking online for towels and sheets and stuff. That can take up two or three hours right there. Or I’m doing crossword puzzles online. Then, before long, I start thinking about dinner, and then we order from the delivery places, like Uber Eats. I make sure to tip the driver a lot. Then we have dinner, and then we decide what we’re going to watch on Netflix. Right now, we’re watching The Americans.
The first song on your new album I really connected to was “Bad News Blues.” It reminded me of Dylan’s “Everything is Broken.”
Doesn’t it? I know! You’re the first person who said that! I totally was thinking of that! I remember saying that in the studio. There’s a Dylan vibe to it. That song was probably in my subconscious and in my brain somewhere.
When you were first starting out, you were singing Dylan covers in clubs, right?
Yeah. He’s been my hero since the time I first discovered him when I was 12 years old in 1965. I had the honor of doing about 10 shows with him and Van Morrison.
Any interesting conversations with Dylan?
You know what? I had this fantasy that we would be sitting around, all together, talking at the end of the night and hanging out—me and Van and Bob. It wasn’t anything like that. Bob came up to me the first night, before the first show and said, “Hi.” He was very sweet. And then I never saw him again. He would just keep to himself and leave after the shows. And Van kept to himself. I remember one of the guys in Van’s band telling me, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I might have to leave the band.” Those guys never knew whether they were going to get fired from one night to the next. People were walking on eggshells. The whole thing was not what I thought it was going to be. It made me realize that this isn’t where I want to be. I don’t want to be like that, ever—where nobody’s having fun. It was all big arenas. But standing and listening to Van sing—it was worth it just for that. He was always my other hero. I just worshipped at his feet. Both of them, really.
You did that beautiful cover of “Trying to Get to Heaven.”
Thank you. I love that song.
Did Bob ever say anything to you about it?
No. We barely exchanged three words. We did talk way back in the ‘70s, when I was playing at Folk City. I got up to sing a few songs before this band went on. And Dylan came in and he was hanging out at the bar. He was there to see Tom Pacheco. They knew each other from Woodstock. The original owner of Folk City was there, this Italian guy named Mike Porco. I had been talking to Bob without realizing it was him. And Mike, in this Italian accent, said, “This is a-Bobby. Bobby Dylan.” I was in shock. I was still really young, and I didn’t have any albums out. Bob said, “Stay in touch. We’re going to be going on the road soon.” It was around the time he was collecting people to go on the Rolling Thunder Revue. But then he’s always been something of an enigma.
Maybe now there are people who have their Lucinda Williams stories about some time they talked to you at a bar.
Oh, yeah. I’m sure. But really, I’m approachable.
But there must be a danger in people identifying too strongly with some of your songs, since you have all these dark songs about suicide and heartbreak. In fact, there are songs on Good Souls, Better Angels that are as dark as any I have ever heard.
Well, things have gotten pretty bad.
Yes, and this was written before they got really bad. I’m looking at “Wakin’ Up”:
Doin’ speed balls
Down in the basement
Still on my mind I can’t erase it
That demon of his
He had to chase it
He threw a punch
Somehow I missed it
I should’ve split
Thought I could fix it
Pulled the kitchen
Chair out from under me
He pulled my hair
And then he kicks on me
Next thing, I swear He wants to kiss on me
Yeah, after all this
He wants to piss on me
What was that about?
(Laughter) I was in an abusive relationship. That’s what that was. That’s me talking about it. I thought about whether I should put it on the album or not, because it is so intense. That was another step for me to just throw the door wide open and let people see it.
Did you have to go to a particularly dark place to write it?
Yeah, but I’ve gone there before. The most painful songs to me are the sadder ones. They would make me cry. This is more of an angry thing.
What made you cry?
The one that really made me cry for some reason was “Big Black Train.” It’s a very simple song, looking at it from the outside. That song I wrote about losing my dad made me cry.
“Sweet Old World” makes me cry. I lost someone to suicide, and that’s the song.
Oh, I’m sorry. A lot of people have told me they’ve lost someone that way and the song helped them.
And now your new songs like “Bad News Blues” or “Man Without a Soul” are like purgation for the way so many of us are feeling.
These are some of the most self-empowering songs I’ve written. It felt good to sing “Wakin’ Up” or “You Can’t Rule Me.” I loved singing that song. It’s got that rock thing, that blues thing. It’s not surprising to me that I made an album that sounds like this. Even when I was a lot younger and listening to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, I was also listening to Cream and the Doors. And then I got into really hard-edged Delta Blues stuff, like Robert Johnson. So whenever I write about the devil, it comes from that blues stuff. It was all bound to come out in this way. People ask, “Where does this come from?” And I say, it’s always been there. I hope “Man Without a Soul” can survive beyond Trump. I don’t know why it wouldn’t because fill in the blank. We’ve had to struggle with that person since day one.
Have you been having conversations with other songwriters about responding to the changes in the world?
No, because I haven’t been anywhere.
Even on the phone?
No. I really don’t like talking on the phone that much.
I don’t mind, like, right now, talking to you. I probably do more of that online, like on Facebook a little bit, with other artists.
Are you interested in younger artists?
Yes, I’m very interested. I’ve been listening to the last War on Drugs album, and I’m totally in love with it. I’ve been listening to Sharon Van Etten, not the most recent album but the one before.
Are We There Yet?
Yeah. I love that album.
Do you have any optimism about the future?
I do, because that’s the kind of person I am. Maybe people are waking up. If you look back at history, the times that brought people together were the times that were really bad. People see things with Trump getting worse and worse and worse. When the civil rights movement happened, things were getting worse and worse and worse. People were getting lynched. And then it grew into a movement. The Vietnam War pushed people to go into the streets and demonstrate. And then people got kind of lazy and complacent. And now people are getting really pissed off. It’s very simple: people need to vote, and people have to vote blue, no matter who.
Your path was so unusual. You didn’t really find success until you were in your forties, and even then, you constantly had to prove yourself.
I’m kind of an anomaly right now. People are saying, “Wow, I can’t believe a 67-year-old woman puts out an album like this.” They try to be all subtle about it. They say, “Most artists at this time in life are slowing down, but not you. What do you attribute that to?” I’m, like, I don’t know. I don’t think in those terms. I’m still the same person. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have kids. I don’t know. I’ve been on the same path. I think of women like Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith. There aren’t a lot of women in the rock world anyway. Most of it is pretty youth-oriented, but then because of the kind of music I do, I don’t really have to worry about that. I just kind of forge ahead and do what I do.
That’s probably why I decided to become a really good songwriter, because that way, I didn’t have to worry about how I sing or how I look or anything. If I was able to write well, they wouldn’t be able to take that away from me. Then I would be able to compete with the men. Then my songwriting changed, and the main reason for that is that I met my soulmate, and Tom [Overby] and I got married, and right around the time my Little Honey album was coming out and they kept asking, “Are you still going to be able to write songs?”—it was really ridiculous. And I had to explain, “Yes, I’m still going to write songs, I just have to branch out for different things to write about.” That’s something I wanted to do anyway. I didn’t want to keep writing about unrequited love for the rest of my life.
Writing about Trump is like writing about an abusive relationship.
You know what? You’re right. If I may say so, you’re very perceptive. Nobody else has said that before. It really is coming from a similar place.
Have you taken any offense for these new songs from Trump supporters?
I have a cousin who’s a Trump supporter. I have no idea what happened to him or how he got there. Our grandfather was a Socialist Democrat, and he’s probably rolling over in his grave. What happened?
It’s a cult of personality, the essence of fascism.
Absolutely. My cousin says, “Well, he’s the president. He makes mistakes like every other president, and then he tries to fix them.” What the hell kind of answer is that? They don’t have any answers.
That reminds me: the last time I saw you perform, you played Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” with the deleted verse about “Old Man Trump.” [Fred Trump was Woody Guthrie’s landlord.] Have you been thinking about that lately?
Yes, especially when I get this feedback from people who tell me I should just shut up and sing and stay out of this stuff. There was an article in The New York Times called “Has Anyone Found Donald Trump’s Soul?” And I thought, my God, have they heard my song? So we posted it on my Facebook page along with a link to the song, “Man Without a Soul,” and, my God, you wouldn’t believe some of the responses. One of them said, “Lucinda wrote that song ‘Compassion.’ I thought she was a compassionate person. She doesn’t have the right to write a song like this.’” Somebody else said, “I used to be a fan of her music, but not anymore.” Someone else said, “She should just shut up and stop talking about politics.” Some of these were really mean. Someone said, “She sounds like she’s having a heart attack while she’s singing.” I wasn’t about to get into the middle of all that, so my husband wrote a statement. It surprised me, and it bothered me. These were people who were fans of my music. My husband thought I had trolls.
I guess it’s normal, but if they’re going to come out of the woodwork, now’s the time. I knew when I put this album out that this wasn’t real subtle. This is right in your face. If it’s gonna push people’s buttons, if they’re not gonna like it, so be it. At the same time, it felt really liberating. I’ve never wanted to bash people over the head, like Pussy Riot, even though I think they’re great. Now, I thought, “I’d better expect more of this.” What if they told Woody Guthrie, “Shut up and sing?” I can write about whatever the hell I want to write about.
Well, we are certainly living in bleak times, so artists have to respond.
Yeah, my favorite word right now is “dystopian.” I didn’t do this to make people feel bad, but I’m an artist first and foremost. It’s my way of expressing myself. It starts there. Then I try to make it palatable to other people. Things push people’s buttons, whether it’s positive or negative. Either way, at least it pushes the buttons. There’s nothing worse than apathy.
David Yaffe is a Professor of Humanities at Syracuse. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell.