Lucinda Williams' music has gotten her through her darkest days. It's been that way since growing up amid family chaos in the Deep South, as she recounts in her candid 2023 memoir, Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. Over the past two years, it's been the force driving her recovery from a debilitating stroke she suffered on November 17, 2020, at age 67. Her masterful, multi-Grammy-winning songwriting has never deserted her. To wit, her stunning, 16th studio album, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, brims over with some of the best work of her career. And though Williams can no longer play her beloved guitar – a constant companion since age 12 – her distinctive vocals sound better than ever.
The band rocks out on the album's jubilant opening track, "Let's Get the Band Back Together," which features a gang of background singers, including Margo Price and Buddy Miller. Inspired by "that need for community after all the isolation of the pandemic," Williams offers, the song is "about getting old friends together again who'd drifted apart." Price also joins her on the bluesy protest, "This Is Not My Town."
The evocative "New York Comeback" also includes guest vocalists – Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. A Lucinda Williams fan, Springsteen had joined her onstage in London a few years back, and he and Scialfa had wanted to contribute to a Williams album for a while. With Reese Wynans on B3 and the Doug Pettibone-Stuart Mathis guitar attack, the musical setting perfectly matches the theme of "Comeback," as well as on the catchy story-song "Rock N' Roll Heart," to which Springsteen and Scialfa also contributed vocals. Says Williams, "Having Bruce and Patti on these songs feels really great. It's just so cool!"
Another musical hero of Williams, the late Tom Petty is the subject of the elegiac "Stolen Moments." Williams, who toured with Petty in 1999, played his last Hollywood Bowl shows before his sudden death in October 2017. "Tom was a down to earth, sweet, loving person, and I miss his music but I miss him more," she relates. "I wrote this song after he passed away. I was just heartbroken, and I'm still reeling."
Another fallen musician, Bob Stinson, founding lead guitarist of The Replacements, inspired "Hum's Liquor." "Tom came up with that," says Williams, of her husband Tom Overby, a Minneapolis native who lived near the liquor store. Overby witnessed from his window Stinson's daily morning visits, which eventually cut the former Replacement's life short. "It haunted me," Overby relates, "and when I read Bob Mehr's biography of the band and learned about his childhood abuse, it explained a lot." Tommy Stinson added vocals to the track, which "was really emotional," says Williams. "We told him it's a tribute to his brother," Overby adds, and "Tommy loved the song." (The album is dedicated to Bob Stinson, "a true rock n roll heart.")
Williams' own rock n roll life is reflected in several of the album's most moving ballads. The bittersweet "Last Call for the Truth" finds her asking for "one more taste of my lost youth," while on "Jukebox," her corner-bar Wurlitzer with "Patsy Cline and Muddy Waters" offers solace when she's "going crazy with the sound of my own voice." Angel Olsen contributes backing vocals on the latter, and vocalist Siobhan Maher Kennedy appears on the former. The haunting "Where the Song Will Find Me" is beautifully orchestrated with layers of violin and cello, played and arranged by Lawrence Rothman. And the ode to perseverance, "Never Gonna Fade Away," is – like Williams' live performances – further testimony to the redemptive power of music.
Through all the hardships Williams faced in 2020 – a destructive tornado damaging her new home in Nashville, being sidelined by the pandemic, and then the catastrophic stroke – her music kept her going and continues to bring her more laurels. The past year has seen Williams honored by BMI for her songwriting, her induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, and a Grammy Week tribute at the Troubadour, with her songs performed by a diversity of Americana artists. She duetted with Willie Nelson on Billy Joe Shaver's "Live Forever," which won a Grammy in February for Best Country Performance. On her birthday in January she performed at a sold-out show in Belfast, Ireland. "I was so glad I was there when I turned 70," she relates. "The audience sang 'Happy Birthday,' Travis brought a birthday cake out onstage, and we took it on the bus and all had a piece of cake. Afterwards, I was so inspired I started writing a song about Northern Ireland."
As she promises on the powerful last track of Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart–one of the best albums of her career–Lucinda Williams is "never gonna fade away."
- Vinyl LP
- Gatefold Jacket
- Let's Get the Band Back Together
- New York Comeback
- Last Call for the Truth
- Stolen Moments
- Rock n Roll Heart
- This Is Not My Town
- Hum's Liquor
- Where the Song Will Find Me
- Never Gonna Fade Away