When Lucinda Williams was in elementary school, all the other kids brought rock collections and other standard fare to show-and-tell. But she brought a folder. "I put this notebook together of seven poems and a short story by Cindy Williams," she remembers. Decades later, she's still documenting her impressions of the world, now in raw, often mournful songs that explore death, heartbreak, abandonment, and love. Many of her them are based in the American south, where Lucinda grew up—including those on her latest album The Ghosts of Highway 20. "I know these roads like the back of my hand," she sings on the title track.
Lucinda's father was Miller Williams, a prolific southern poet. Her mother, Lucille, was a pianist. They split up when Lucinda was about ten. "That's all just kind of a big blur," Lucinda says about that time. Her mother had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies, and she spent most of her life in therapy or mental hospitals. Her father took over Lucinda and her two siblings, and tried to help them understand that their mother was sick. "My dad was actually quite protective of her, and he would say, 'It's not her fault, she's not well,'" Lucinda told me. "There's a part of that that's healthy; the only problem is that I never gave myself permission to be angry at my mother."
Lucinda was close to her father throughout her life. He encouraged her interest in words and writing, even taking her to visit Flannery O'Connor when she was a little girl. So it was especially hard for her to see him go through Alzheimer's disease. He died last year, less than six months after the summer day when he told Lucinda he couldn't write poetry anymore. "I just sat there and just cried," she remembers. "That was when I lost him."
At 63, Lucinda says she's more successful than ever, selling out shows on the road and happily in love with her manager Tom Overby, whom she married on stage during an encore in 2009. But, she told me, getting older can still feel like a drag. "I don't like the aging process. I don't like getting older because of all the loss. It just gets harder and harder."
See the video on Lucinda's Facebook page of her performance of "Compassion" at her father's home before he died. Miller Williams reads his poem, and Lucinda follows by singing her musical interpretation.
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