The Ms. Q&A: Lucinda Williams Talks Politics, Protest Songs and Overcoming Abuse

The Ms. Q&A: Lucinda Williams talks Politics, Protest Songs and Overcoming Abuse
Lucinda Williams and Margo Price performing at the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville. (Repost from @laurennapierphotography / Lucinda Williams on Facebook)

Sometimes a record comes into the world at the exact moment when you need it. It’s so perfectly crafted, so dead on in it’s message—sonically, lyrically, even spiritually—it’s hard to believe it’s real. 

It’s difficult to articulate how grateful you are that it exists, and that by existing validates that you are not alone.

This is how many quarantined listeners felt finding Lucinda Williams’s “Good Souls and Better Angels,” released early into the pandemic this April. From the defiant swagger of “You Can’t Rule Me,” to calling out liars in “Bad News Blues,” to the Trump-directed “Man Without a Soul,” Williams serves up track after track speaking truth to power and combating all forms of abuse. As she sings, you can feel her refusing to be dominated or categorized, while reinventing the modern era protest song. 

I interviewed the Grammy-winner this summer, while she was quarantined with her husband in their home in Nashville. She was wonderfully candid in her reflections about mental health and the music industry, as well as thoughts on true compassion and toxic relationships.

As she spoke, I was aware that I was listening to an artist who almost never broke through because record studios didn’t know how to market her sound. Today, she is regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of our time. 

Emily Sernaker: How’s it going? I heard your roof got damaged from a tornado while in quarantine. And you released an album during COVID. 

Lucinda Williams: We had just moved into this house we bought in east Nashville. Then a couple of weeks later the tornado hit and took off most of the front porch and some of the roof. 

Then we still had a whole tour planned through the summer then we had to cancel everything. As of March 9, we’ve basically been in a lockdown here. I’ve been out of the house like three or four times for various online music things—we’ve been doing a lot of that stuff—and I’ve gone over to the studio where we cut the album. 

It’s almost like I’ve got another job now while I’m here. This is like my part-time day gig doing Zoom interviews, musical online things, and live Instagram. Every day or night I do The New York Times crossword puzzle. That’s my obsession. And Tom and I get caught up on movies that we haven’t had a chance to watch before because we’re always on the road. 

Sernaker: How did it feel to have the record come out now?

Williams: Somebody recently said, “Well, this is kind of a weird time to release an album.” But actually, the timing probably couldn’t have been better in terms of what’s going on. Which was just kind of a coincidence, that all happened at the same time we put the album out. I was glad to have released it when we did. Promoting the record has helped me have something to focus on while we’re in this surreal environment. I had to get used to doing the Zoom thing because I hadn’t done it before. It’s a whole new reality. 

The Ms. Q&A: Lucinda Williams talks Politics, Protest Songs and Overcoming Abuse
Lucinda Williams, 2009. (Wikimedia)

Sernaker: I read that you travel with a briefcase where you keep drafts of songs with you. How do you decide which songs get finished and included on an album?

Williams: I keep everything. I have an ongoing supply of songs I’m kind of picking away at a little bit here, a little bit there. Some is stuff I’ve been working on for a while. Usually bits and pieces of songs. I’m always coming up with ideas and jotting them down. I have all these cocktail napkins from sitting at bars and getting inspired. That way, I always have stuff to draw from when I sit down to write. I’m not just sitting and looking at a blank piece of paper, trying to start from scratch. Some of them go back years and I keep them to either finish those particular songs or use something from that idea in another song. So, yeah, I’ll take that [briefcase] with me everywhere. 

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Sernaker: It’s so cool that your father was a poet. I wonder if your approach to seeing the world as an artist, to always be creating — is that something you learned from him? Were there always scraps of poems around your house?

Williams: I was pretty creative as a kid, from the start really. As soon as I learned how to read or write, I was writing little short stories, poems and drawing. I was one of those kids who was never bored. 

My dad used to tell this story about when I was in first grade. The teacher asked the kids to bring in an example of their hobby. All the other kids’ stuff was bird’s nests and rock collections and all those kinds of things. My dad helped me make a folder of my little stories and so I brought that to show. Right off the bat, I was on the outside looking in. I wasn’t typical. 

Sernaker: And your career hasn’t been typical since. What was it like getting started? 

Williams: Right after I moved out to Los Angeles for the first time in 1984, I jumped into the music scene and started meeting people and opening up for different bands. Eventually a buzz started building up and some record company guys started approaching me. They all started saying the same thing: that my music fell in the cracks between country music and rock music. And back then there was no market for that. This was before Americana. 

At one point I did this demo tape for Sony. I was over the moon and did the tape with a lot of great musicians. Once they got the tape, Sony in L.A. said it was too country for rock. So they sent it to Nashville. And Sony in Nashville said it was too rock for country. So, that’s where that expression came in. Then the tape fell into the hands of this guy from Rough Trade Records, a Punk label out of England, of all things. They were looking to expand their roster of artists and sign different kinds of artists. They took an interest and I ended up signing with them. But not before meeting with all sorts of different labels. Big labels, little labels… they all passed. 

The record I did with them was my launching pad. I was kind of like a critic’s darling with that album. It was a breakthrough, really, just in terms of being discovered. 

Sernaker: So then “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was the next step in your commercial success?  

Williams: “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was the one where my profile increased more and it started selling. But it really started with the Rough Trade album because at a certain point between that one and Car Wheels, I won the Grammy for Country Song of the Year, which Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded. It was the song “Passionate Kisses,” which was off the Rough Trade album. So, that really started the ball rolling. 

Car Wheels of course just propelled me more. Then I won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. I think I’ve been nominated in just about every category almost, except rap and hip hop. 

Sernaker: What was it like to be a woman in the music industry at that time? Did you find ways to be assertive and maintain your creative license? 

Williams: Yeah. Really just experience and finding the right people to work with. Just like any job. You have to be working with the right team of people who respect your opinions and don’t just shut you down if you have an idea.  

Some people go into the recording studio and just knock it out [quickly]. I have found out the way I like to work is a little bit more deliberate. I like to try different things more. Luckily, I found out that there are other people like that too. 

Like, when I worked with the late Hal Willner (who just passed away from COVID-19) on the West album. He loved to experiment and try things. He was actually kind of driving me crazy. I’d finally met my match! So, it’s really just about understanding the process over the years and not feeling quite so intimidated. There’s always that feeling of like: ‘Oh, my God, this is so permanent.’ Like, once it goes out there, I can’t change it again. That’s it. And everybody’s gonna hear it. I’m not sure about this. There’s a weird part of my vocal on that song that no one’s going to notice except you. It’s all those little things. 

Lucinda Williams performing in Nashville on Sept. 10.
Lucinda Williams performing in Nashville on Sept. 10. (Lucinda Williams / Facebook)

Sernaker: I’m excited to talk about the “Good Souls Better Angels” album and the process of making it. “You Can’t Rule Me” is such a powerhouse opening track.  

Williams: “You Can’t Rule Me” is one of my favorite songs to sing off the album. It’s so empowering. That’s one of the ones I’ve been doing a lot. When I do these Zoom things, they want me to play a couple of songs. I play that one and “Bad News Blues.”

I got the idea for “You Can’t Rule Me” from the original song by Memphis Minnie. She was one of the few early women blues singers who played amazing guitar and wrote her own songs. She has a song called “You Can’t Rule Me” and I took it and expanded on it with the lyrics and the arrangement and all that. In her version, she’s talking about her man: “You can’t rule me. You can’t take my money and try to rule me, too.” I just love that. 

I discovered her some time back in the 70s when I was discovering a lot of Delta blues and Country blues. From what I understand, she would be the only one with all the other male blues guys, which I can identify with. And she stood up to them. If someone pissed her off she’d toss a glass of whiskey in his face. Bessie Smith was apparently really wild like that too. I guess it was a little more black and white back in those days. Like: you were either the good girl or the bad girl. It’s still kind of like that actually: The Madonna vs. whore thing. Women have dealt with that since Adam and Eve.  

Sernaker: I’m interested in your lyrics about claiming rights, both political or personal. Like in “You Can’t Rule Me” you have the opening line: “Man, I’ve got a right to talk about what I’ve seen” and in “Passionate Kisses” you sing: “Give me what I deserve because it’s my right.”

Williams: I’m glad you brought that up, because a lot of people with this new album say, ‘Oh, all of a sudden you’re writing these songs about, you know, the strength and empowering yourself.’ The truth is, I have been exploring that. Maybe before it was in a more subtle way. There are just more of these kinds of songs together on this album. Part of the reason is that the environment we’re in right now has reached a crescendo, the likes of which we’ve never experienced before. 

Being a rebel is in my blood. My father’s father was a Methodist minister. But he was a Christian in the true sense of the word. He ended up leaving the church because he didn’t agree with them, because he was, you know, for equal and civil rights. He was a conscientious objector in WWI which was unheard of. He was involved in the Southern tenant farmers unions struggle. He was progressive. My father once told me, “Your grandfather was a socialist Democrat.” 

When I first started out I listened to a lot of the protest movement music or topical songs, as I prefer to call it. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and of course, Joan Baez. Then later, Bob Dylan. That was the environment, the atmosphere. It felt natural and normal to speak up. 

Recently, I made the mistake of reading some comments on Facebook. After listening to my song, “Man Without a Soul” someone said, “I’ve been a big fan of Lucinda for a long time but I can’t listen to her music anymore. I thought she was a compassionate person because she wrote that song ‘Compassion.’ But this is not a compassionate song, so I’m not buying her records anymore.” I felt bad for that person. I’m the most compassionate person you’ll ever meet! That’s how I wrote these songs. Because I care. What’s happened to that rebellious spirit?

Sernaker: Naming injustice is a form of care. 

Williams: Anyone who is intelligent understands the emotion of anger and how healthy it is. And not to be afraid of it. It’s just another form of self-expression. 

Maybe it’s because I grew up around poets. One of the things that my dad told me was, “Never censor yourself.” That was a big one in the world of poetry. I mean, he could write about anything. He wrote about everything from a cat sleeping on the window sill to a horrible wreck on the highway. He wrote about guilt, sex, longing, war and human suffering…that’s what I’m trying to do. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t. 

The other thing my dad used to say was, “Never lose your sense of wonder.” I understand that as balance between anger and compassion, without letting yourself become cynical and jaded. That’s important. 

Sernaker: Abuse is a big theme in the album. Abuse of power in politics, for one, but you also are opening up about your experience with domestic abuse, especially in the song “Waking Up.”  

Williams: I had to write that song to get it out of my system. I was with this guy who started drinking again (he was sober when I met him). He would change like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’d be sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter and he’d come up and pull the chair out from under me. I mean, just kind of out-of-the-blue stuff like that. I basically went through what everyone goes through in a physically abusive relationship: where the next day I wake up and he says, “Oh, God, I’m so sorry, baby. I love you. I love you.” 

I used to think, ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ And now I understand why [people stay]. I understand something I never understood before. It is one big lesson in life this time around. Actually, not that many people have brought it up in interviews. Maybe it’s because it scares the hell out of people, so they can’t even talk about it. The song is pretty graphic. But it’s true. All of it is true. 

Sernaker: I read that your husband, Tom, co-wrote the song “Big Black Train.” That’s about trying to lift yourself up out of depression, right?  

Williams: Tom actually had the idea for that song. At first, I wasn’t sure and said “wait a minute, there have been hundreds of songs written about black trains.” What do I have to say about a train that hasn’t been said before? Tom said, “Well this is about depression and a big black cloud. It’s really the opposite of other train songs where it’s usually about the train to freedom.” Then I got into the idea and built on some of the lines that Tom had given me and then arranged it. When I got the melody, it all came together. Now that song is one of my favorite ones on the album. I love singing it. It’s very tender and very haunting. 

Sernaker: I like that the song doesn’t say “if” you feel down—it says “when.” You’re clear there will be difficult times. How do you anchor yourself when that happens?  

Williams: Again, I think it’s about having the right people around and somebody you can talk to. If I were going to give advice, it would be: Don’t feel like you’re alone. We’ve seen what happens with that, especially during this pandemic. We weren’t meant to be alone. No man or woman is an island. We need to be connected.

At the risk of sounding all flowery, I’m a spiritual person. There’s an energy there. God or whatever you call it. I’m connected with that. 

The reality of things is you need to have a family of people you can lean on. I was lucky. I found my soulmate. It took me until my mid 50s, but having a soulmate helps. A good partner. Then your friends. Just the basic needs of life. There’s nothing really mysterious about it. It’s just feeling connected. It is something other than yourself. 

Sernaker: Let’s talk a bit more about “Man Without a Soul,” directed at President Trump. You say: “It’s all coming down.” What do you mean by that?

The Ms. Q&A: Lucinda Williams talks Politics, Protest Songs and Overcoming Abuse
Williams early voting in Nashville on Oct. 23. (Lucinda Williams / Facebook)

Williams: He’s going to lose. The big power structure is going to crumble. That’s the way I prefer to look at things. At a certain point, it’s all going to come tumbling down just like the fall of Rome. It’s got to happen, you know? We can’t afford to not let it happen.

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Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.