The idea that suffering makes for great art is one of those time-honored rock 'n roll tropes, so much so that Todd Rundgren named one of his albums The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. And while Lucinda Williams has had her share of personal trauma, much of which has informed her work over the past few decades, the happily married musician still isn't buying it.
For her, happiness is an underrated part of the creative process, even if the name of her fine new double-CD, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, doesn't sound all that cheerful.
"It's not that suffering doesn't help your writing, but I can't write when I'm in the middle of feeling like crap. That's the last thing I want to do," says the L.A.-based singer-songwriter. "There's this whole myth that you're sitting on the side of your bed drinking Jack Daniels while your tears fall onto your guitar and you're writing away. That's not how it works."
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone marks something of a new phase for Williams, whose mainstream breakthrough came with 1998's Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She left former label Lost Highway, which had been reluctant to release a two-CD album for business reasons, and made this the first release on her own Highway 20 label.
It would be easy to imagine Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone going down a slippery slope of creative over-indulgence. But Williams managed to deftly sidestep that with a collection of songs that are all killer and no filler. With a big assist from Tony Joe White, the Louisiana native drawls her way through twang-soaked swamp-rock like "Protection," as well as "Stowaway in Your Heart" (which has echoes of Neil Young's Harvest period), "West Memphis" (which rails over the trio of teens framed in the 1993 murders of three Arkansas boys), and the honky-tonk ballad "This Old Heartache" (which serves up classic tear-in-your-beer sentiments).
Best of all is a near-10-minute reading of the late J.J. Cale's "Magnolia," which has an ethereal haze hanging over it thanks to the elegant and minimalistic support of guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, whose strumming wraps the singer's vocals in a gauze of delicate riffs and chords.
But for anyone who's even remotely followed Williams' long and storied career, it should come as no surprise that she'd carry on this high level of creative brilliance as she enters her sixth decade of life on an upswing.
"It's given me more freedom, being happily married," she says, "and forced me to push myself to find other things to write about besides unrequited love. The other side of it all is that you can draw on those things that created the pain. I just look at it like an endless well, where I dip into it and pull stuff out that goes all the way back into my childhood. And not just my own life. It's really been liberating to be in that place as a writer."