Lucinda Williams: ‘I hated the way major labels made my music sound’ | Lucinda Williams

Which of your tracks are you most proud of? axolotly
I really like Bus to Baton Rouge: the lyrics, the recording, the way it came about. I was thinking about the house my mother’s parents lived in. My grandfather was a Methodist preacher and I remember the way my grandmother would throw the coffee grounds into the garden. She made the best banana pudding. There’s a little darkness in there, too. “The sweet honeysuckle that grew all around / Were switches when we were bad” is about the narrow branches they’d use to whip us. We were told: “Pick a switch, child”, and you’d have to go into the garden and pick your instrument of torture.

Your 1988 eponymous album was released by British label Rough Trade, whose other albums at the time were by the likes of Easterhouse, Band of Holy Joy, the Smiths and the Woodentops. How did it feel being a country singer in such company? VerulamiumParkRanger
I didn’t get the chance to meet the Pixies or any of those bands, but at the heart of what I do is rock’n’roll and punk. Hank Williams was a punk, but I have just as much in common with Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. [Rough Trade’s] Geoff Travis still comes to my shows. I had a very different experience on a major label. I told one guy I wanted the producer who did Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and he went: “Is Blonde on Blonde a band?” I hated the way they made my music sound. I went to one guy’s office in Beverly Hills and he was jumping up and down in his Gucci shoes going: “It sounds so good!” And I’m sitting there going: “It sucks. I hate it.”

Do you have any favourite memories of spending time with Tom Petty? Stozzlar
He was always very concerned with how I was doing and feeling. He took me on tour with him in the 90s. The audiences didn’t know me and people would be sitting there with their arms folded, waiting for Tom. Tom saw this happening so one night he came out on stage, took the mic and said: “I want you to listen to this next artist because she’s really good. You need to pay attention.” It was just so heartwarming and moving, because nobody ever does that. I had no idea he was going to do it and it says everything about him as a person.

What did you think of the Vic Chesnutt song named after you? troyka
I thought it was charming and clever. It’s an honour. I was surprised he did that, but it was very sweet. He could come across as very gravelly or edgy when you met him, because he’d be in his wheelchair and he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. The first time I met him he spun round in his wheelchair and out came this flurry of obscenities. “This motherfucking, cocksucking …” you know. But somehow he connected with me and my music. I loved Vic and was heartbroken when he left us [in 2009].

Lucinda Williams
‘The heart of what I do is rock’n’roll and punk’ … Williams performs at Roseland, New York, 2001. Photograph: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

You scrapped the first version of [1998 abum] Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, recorded with Gurf Morlix producing. What didn’t you like about it? viennesewaltzer
I heard the rough mixes for Steve Earle’s El Corazón album, compared them to my own and Steve’s sounded like I wanted my record to sound. I ended up going back in with Steve and his engineer, initially just to recut a couple of tracks but before we knew it we had redone all the songs.

I was in the audience for your show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003, shortly after the Dixie Chicks [now the Chicks] had felt the full force of the redneck country music establishment as a result of their criticism of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Did Bush ever take your invitation – in solidarity – to “kiss my Dixie white ass”? RamblingChap
Wow [laughter]. I can’t believe I said that on stage. The mistake [the Chicks] made in my opinion was apologising after they said it [the apology was later rescinded], but they got so much pressure from their record company because it was affecting sales and their fans were so Republican. They were new and it was out of character; this wasn’t Public Enemy! But in a way that makes what they said braver.

Your forthright memoir Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You is a compelling read. What was it like to write? VerulamiumParkRanger
Like writing a journal but where you don’t have to hold back, although I didn’t want to offend anyone. There goes my punk reputation! But at first I thought I’d have to wait until everyone in it had died. I didn’t want to cause rifts. Like my old guitar player Gurf Morlix … we fell out during the making of Car Wheels. He’s told me “That’s not how it was”, but won’t tell me why he got upset. I have to assume it’s because I brought Steve [Earle] in, but I love the guy and we made some great music together. Bands can get very heated. You almost need a therapist!

Is your track Changed the Locks based on reality? axolotly
I was enjoying using those metaphors for, you know: stay away and I’m gonna change the locks. You can’t come in and I’m gonna change the way I dress. I’m gonna change the car I drive, I’m gonna change the name of this town. You feel like you’ll just do anything to avoid running into this person. I’m sure I was thinking of a real person when I was writing it, but I wasn’t actually gonna do all those things [laughter].

Lucinda Williams
Step on … Williams in New York City. Photograph: Danny Clinch

Do you think the landscape for women in country music has changed since you started in the industry? Aimsnz2000
Maybe there’s more attention paid to women artists now. I don’t have to deal with what a woman in the corporate world probably has to deal with. You know, I probably get paid the same for a show as Steve Earle. I think everyday sexism has lessened, or I’m more used to it. But I don’t get the comments I got when I started out, like: “You’re pretty good for a chick.”

Your dad was an expert on [1940s-60s American novelist] Flannery O’Connor and her influence is evident on many of your songs. Her variety of southern gothic is a glorious portrayal of “old weird America”, but in these days of #MeToo and BLM her language is problematic. Do you have any advice for a confused Englishman on how to navigate these troubled waters? Nyrenisgod
Flannery O’Connor’s stuff was realism. In my teens I fell in love with her writing. I know she wasn’t racist, and I can’t speak for her but I think she used that language because it was the vernacular at the time. There’s a lot of literature that could run into that issue. It’s similar with blues music. One of my friends introduced me to an artist who’d sing stuff like “My nipples are as big as my thumb”. Really out there even by today’s standards, but I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of changing history. An interviewer once asked how I could be a country artist and a blues artist. I quoted Hank Williams – “Country music is the white man’s blues” – but they changed it to “the white person’s blues” cos they thought it was sexist or something. I was literally quoting something he’d said, so I was livid.

Was Bruce Springsteen in the studio with you for his guest appearance on your recent single New York Comeback? McScootikins
Unfortunately not. We couldn’t work the logistics out so we sent the tracks to Bruce and his wife Patti Scialfa and they laid down their vocals remotely. I was collaborating with my husband Tom Overby and the artist Jesse Malin on the track when Tom – who loves Bruce – said: “Wouldn’t it be great to get Bruce Springsteen on this track?!” Jesse knows everyone and he just said: “I think I could get Bruce.” Sure enough, he said he’d love to do it, because he’s a fan of my music, too.

How has your daily life changed since having a stroke [in 2020]? GodSaveTheCitizen
I’ve done a lot of rehab and technically I’m still in recovery. The brain and body have a remarkable capacity to heal themselves, but I still shuffle when I walk. I haven’t been able to play guitar, which is the big thing. My husband keeps telling me I need to play through the pain. The actual playing is good exercise. I’m still doing shows with my band, just differently, and I can sing fine. Some people tell me I’m singing better than before I had the stroke.

Lucinda Williams’ new album, Stories From a Rock N Roll Heart, is released 30 June on Highway 20 Records/Thirty Tigers

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