AFTER 12 ALBUMS and nearly four decades on the road, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams deserves a pass if she can’t remember the last time she played Long Island. Endless concerts and tour stops have a tendency to bleed together over time. But just as she is about to give up on trying to remember, it comes flooding back to her. “I just flashed back on Stephen Talkhouse,” Williams said, recalling the iconic music venue in Amagansett. “That was probably the first time I played Long Island. I liked that place. I went back and played two or three times there.”
Williams, who returns to the area on Sept 2 to play the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, goes on to recall a Jones Beach concert in 1999 opening for old friend Tom Petty, and a benefit show around the same time, but she’ll be the first to admit that being on the road for as long as she has can make recollections tricky.
It’s enough to conjure the chorus of the first song on her new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, in which Williams repeatedly laments, “even your thoughts are dust.” The song is equal parts Socratic declaration and disenchanted resignation on a double album filled with catharses that seem to have come in the quieter moments on tour. It’d be easy to call Highway 20 Williams’s most personal album to date, which would be a bold statement. After all, this is the woman who gave listeners the country-folk masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998 and has since steadily moved toward a more blues-tinged sound on albums like World Without Tears (2003) and 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.
What separates The Ghosts of Highway 20 is that it works as a compilation of road-tested songs, some of which are more than a decade old. The album’s 14 tracks were recorded in the same L.A. sessions that produced Down Where the Spirit, though Williams, whose voice now sounds weathered and wise, is quick to rebuff anyone who thinks these songs were just leftovers. It’s actually that some of them were just too painful to record until now. “Some of these songs were written after my mother’s death, which was in 2004. There was a period between when my mother died and my father died, which were the two biggest, catastrophic events of my entire life…[songs] like ‘When Death Comes Knocking’ and ‘Doors of Heaven,’ those were both written around my mother’s death, but I hadn’t put them out yet.”
Like Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind or even David Bowie’s final masterpiece, Blackstar, Ghosts of Highway 20 is a moving examination of mortality from an artist finally ready to face it head-on. It also works as a tribute to the towns and cities that stretch along Highway 20 (technically an interstate now) from South Carolina to western Texas. Williams spent a good part of her youth traveling those roads in the 60s and 70s with her poet and professor father. “I was born long enough ago to have seen a whole different part of the South. And so many towns have grown so much and have become so modern. It was a different world. I have very strong connections with the South. It was a part of my childhood.” They may not have lived in one town for too long, but Williams can’t help feel a little nostalgic when she travels through them these days.
Another connection that is explored thoroughly on the album, both musically and metaphorically, is her relationship with the blues. She recalls her discovery of delta blues legend Robert Johnson as making her “hair stand on end” and while she feels lucky to have seen some of the iconic bluesmen perform over the years, she acknowledges that Ghosts of Highway 20 could almost serve as a eulogy for a regional music that has all but disappeared. “There are so many blues artists from that Highway 20 area. It’s a heavy Civil War area, and it’s a heavy delta blues area. I was so impacted by the delta blues gods when I started discovering them and I’m lucky to have seen some of them before they died.”
Given her somber tone and the stripped-down sound on Highway 20, it’s tempting to say that Williams has created the first full-fledged blues album of her career. But she’s reluctant to label it any such way, especially given what passes for the blues these days. “I’ve got a very wide range of interests as far as music goes,” Williams said. “I’m not one of those purists, but if I’m going to listen to blues, I’m going to listen to the old stuff.” She added with a chuckle, “Every so often, someone slips through the cracks and has something to offer.” They do indeed.