Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: Ghosts of Highway 20
Label: Thirty Tigers
Release Date: 02/05/2016
This is Lucinda’s “Van Morrison” album. While last year’s double CD, Down Where the Spirt Meets the Bone, represented an organic, more casual approach than her previous efforts, this one finds her moving even further in that direction, exploring a jazz-like style in a few places, while the resonating dual guitars of masters Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz frame her poetic lyrics. Several songs seem to evolve in a live, improvisational way, while engineer David Bianco perfectly captures every nuance in her vocals and the extraordinary guitar work.
Frisell and Leisz played on some cuts from the last record, and we were told that there was plenty more to be released. Little did we know that we’d again get a double CD, this time with extended cuts of nine minutes (“Louisiana Story”) and almost 13 minutes (“Faith and Grace” – a talking blues and gospel rap). She also wrote the music to a lost Woody Guthrie piece, “House of Earth,” and gives Springsteen’s “Factory” her own anguished makeover. The remaining 12 tracks are ostensibly united under the theme of Highway 20, which runs from Georgia to Texas and through a number of cities Lucinda has resided in. They are not really story songs per se, but seem to deal with particular emotional experiences that are tied to certain locales. Williams seems to allude to the loss of her father, the poet Miller Williams, in a few places, notably “Death Came,” and “If My Love Could Kill.” Mortality is also explored in several places as indicated by these titles like “Doors of Heaven” and “If There’s a Heaven.” The former is a song she had written several years ago, and its brisker tempo is a welcome segue to “Death Came.”
Much of the material on her last outing reminded me of her Essence album, and this one does as well due to the rich lyric imagery and the many spaces in the music. Lucinda has often commented how the revered guitarist on that album, Bo Ramsey, taught her the value of spaces. Guitarist Val McCallum adds a rocking element to the title track, as engaging a tune as Lucinda has ever done with its unequivocally convicted refrain, “I know this road like the back of my hand.” “If There’s a Heaven” features McCallum as well. Lucinda’s rhythm section of Butch Norton (drums) and David Sutton (bass) are present throughout, enabling her to carry off many of these tunes in live performance without the presence of Frisell and Leisz, who are, along with Lucinda, the real stars of these recordings. While the album drags a bit on Disc One, it is truly a sonic masterpiece, difficult to match anywhere. Catch her tour in Philly at World Café (3/9-10) and NYC at City Winery (3/13-18).
– Jim Hynes