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Lu’s Blues: Lisa Iannucci on Lucinda Williams and her album ROCK N ROLL HEART (feat. Bruce & Patti)

July 26, 2023


EDITOR'S NOTE: As recently reported on BruceSpringsteen.net, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa contribute backing vocals to the latest album by Lucinda Williams, Rock N Roll Heart. Williams also just announced a special series of October shows in support of Rock N Roll Heart, combining her songs with storytelling. It's been dubbed "The Don't Tell Anybody The Secrets" Tour, a name derived from the title of her recently published memoir. "With the extraordinary year I’ve had," says Williams, "including the release of my memoir and latest album, I figured we needed to have a special tour to commemorate it. This will be an evening with me unlike you’ve ever had, no matter how many shows you’ve been to over the years. Im so excited to put this together and hope you are just as excited to experience it." The October tour's finale is slated for October 29 in the heart of "Bruce country" at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, NJ. Click here to purchase available tickets for all of Williams' upcoming concerts, and below you can read Letters To You contributing writer Lisa Iannucci's deep dive into both Williams' career and her latest work:

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In the world of rock n roll troubadours, the legendary Lucinda Williams casts a long shadow.

Considered one of the greatest songwriters of her generation by critics and fellow musicians,

she began her music career making records that received their kudos but little notice by the

buying public.


That began to change when DC-area country artist Mary Chapin Carpenter had a hit with

Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” in 1992. But it wasn’t until the release of the classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road in 1998 that she received the widespread recognition she so richly deserved. Eclectic in style, the album concerns itself with childhood memories of her family’s peripatetic existence, with the hardscrabble musicians Williams met on the road, and with relationships gone astray. 

 

Car Wheels... –  over three years in the making due to the collapse of the American Recordings label, to studio scuffles with co-producer Steve Earle, and to the impossibly high standards Williams sets for herself – had been stopped, started, scrapped and reborn several times before its release. (A 1997 New York Times Magazine profile offers a glimpse into her painstaking creative process.) But it was worth the wait; the finished product, which features vocals by Earle, Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale, guitar work by luminaries like Charlie Sexton, Buddy Miller, and Ray Kennedy, and production support and keyboards from E Streeter Roy Bittan, is now considered not just a landmark in her career, but an alt-country masterpiece.


The success of Car Wheels..., which afforded Williams the opportunity to tour with a top-notch band that included Miller and Lauderdale on guitar, was just the beginning of a storied career that has continued to this day. Over the years, she’s been called “difficult” - a pejorative that rarely applies to her male peers - and has had tumultuous relationships with a who’s who of “bad boy” rock’n’rollers from Ryan Adams to Paul Westerberg. Like Adams, she’s walked offstage mid-set; like Dylan, Springsteen and so many others, she’s spent countless hours in recording studios laboring over minute details. But in the male-dominated world of rock’n’roll, as Joe Jackson famously wrote, “it’s different for girls.” She’s been pretty successful at pushing back on that over the years, but it hasn’t been easy. Certainly Williams was never in the business of being anybody’s role model, but even with the success of Car Wheels..., it took some time for the next generation of artists to cite her as an influence.

 

Career-wise, Lucinda is in constant motion. She’s been releasing records and touring pretty

much nonstop for decades now, but the pandemic of 2020-21 forced her off the road, where,

like many creative folks, she had the time to work on side projects and develop new material.

During that time, she released a series of six homemade works - the Lu’s Jukebox series - most of them tributes to some of her favorite rock and rollers, as well as a holiday release. Available as downloads as well as vinyl and CD collectibles, these releases were mostly covers, but there were some originals like “Stolen Moments" thrown into the mix, too.

 

She also worked on a memoir, the recently released Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You, which, aside from dishing about those “bad boy” dalliances, reveals more about the

Williams' memoir; cover-photo by Danny Clinch

chaotic childhood and ongoing mental health and self-esteem issues with which Williams has struggled over the years. Through it all, she’s still a woman apart, someone who marches to her own drummer, but has ceased caring about fitting in or belonging. Why fit in when you can stand out? “‘I’m just stubborn, it works for me,” she recently told Yahoo Entertainment’s Lily Moayeri.

 

Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart finds her in a ruminative mood. It’s a backward-looking

record laden with nostalgia and regret, filled with lonely barflies longing for a past to which they can never return. Haunted by loss and by relationships that went bad, mentally and physically isolated, this is Williams in search of lost time - sitting in a bar, nursing a beer and playing the same songs over and over on the jukebox, seeking solace in the familiar.

 


Danny Clinch's album-cover photo, in full color here

The album starts off with the upbeat “Let’s Get the Band Back Together,” a song in the vein of the Beach Boys’ “Do it Again.” It’s a celebration of the camaraderie of being in a band, of shared focus and shared stages and tour buses, of a rose-tinted reunion. Unfortunately, the happiness and renewed focus (and often lucrative compensation) always seem short-lived when the band gets back together, as inevitably, the forces that drove them apart surface once again. So what happens when you’re trying to resurrect those bygone days?

 

What follows is the aural trip down the memory lane of a musician who’s spent too many hours on the road, seen the inside of one too many bars from L.A. to Gotham. The production by Williams, spouse Tom Overby, and her old friend Ray Kennedy, is more crisp than some of her previous work, which leaned hard into the murky, sloppy blues of the Delta in which she grew up. It’s up-front and confrontational, just like Lucinda. The next track, “New York Comeback” (co-written with another longtime friend and collaborator, Jesse Malin,) is a somewhat wry play on the trope of self-reinvention in the Big Apple. Malin also co-wrote “Let’s Get the Band Back Together,” and both songs are also reflective of his many years on the road and late nights in bars.

 

But it’s not just the late nights nursing “another green bottle” (“Last Call for the Truth.”) There are also the desperate alcoholic afternoons described in “Hum’s Liquor” (based on the tragic final years of The Replacements' Bob Stinson, with backing vocals provided by his half-brother and fellow Replacement Tommy Stinson) and the lonely melancholy of “Stolen Moments,” which she says is about “feelings that come unexpectedly.” (It’s dedicated to her late friend Tom Petty.) “This is Not My Town” -  another song about isolation and the damage it does to people – also concerns itself with lack of trust and the havoc it wreaks both on personal relationships and on public institutions.

 

In the standout single “Rock N Roll Heart” we hear how music reaches down into people’s

lives and saves them, which should sound familiar to most Springsteen fans. In her memoir,

Williams relates the story of hanging out with Bruce after a show in L.A. Tom Overby, (her date for the evening and future husband) is meeting Springsteen for the first time, and he tells him that Bruce’s music had reached down to him in a similar fashion. And as if to complete the circle (and go completely “meta”), it’s none other than Bruce and wife Patti on backing vocals. (They also provide vocal support on "New York Comeback.")

 

In a sense, we’re all historians of our own lives, examining the events of the past in order to

make sense of the present. And after the pandemic, we all seem to be dealing with trauma on some level; we’re all doing our best to get through the day, each in our own way. (This is a

process that those who’ve worked with psychotherapists may recognize.) Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart, despite its upbeat title, is in many ways concerned with the process of healing, with finding things to hang onto, with self-preservation.

photo by Danny Clinch

“I’m hung up on the past/And life is movin’ on too fast,” Williams sings in “Never Gonna Fade Away.” Her best work always seems to be rooted in bygone days, and this is no exception. Stories... is another strong outing from a seasoned pro who’s still contending with life’s ups and downs (especially as she continues recovering from a stroke she suffered in 2020,) but who always seems to come up swinging. “I’m never gonna fade away,” she sings as the album closes out, and you believe her. This is Lucinda Williams at 70: battle-hardened and scarred, and, as always, a survivor with a rock n roll heart.

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