In 2001, Time magazine called her “America’s best songwriter,” and at age 67, with this year’s heralded album, Good Souls Better Angels, which takes on the political and social issues of today’s unsettled America, Lucinda Williams continues to prove she’s got grit.
Working in the vein of grungy garage rock, and updating her rootsy sound of alternative folk, country and blues-rock, the three-time Grammy winner nonetheless revisits familiar themes and influences that shaped her growing up years in small towns of the South — primarily Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia — as her father, the late poet Miller Williams, pursued university teaching positions. The complexity of relationships, the necessity of rebellion and the price one pays for unflinching dedication to truth and passion have always run through her work, as have loss and death.
The subculture of religion in the South, and the concept of wickedness, is also something that has long preoccupied her, inspired in part by one of her dad’s favorite poems, “Why God Permits Evil.” One of the songs on her current album is “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which she started by marrying a saved scrap of original lyric to a melody steeped in Delta blues. “I was so inspired by Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, and all his songs like, ‘Don’t Let the Devil Ride,’ ” Williams says. “I’ve just always been drawn to that imagery.”
The devil makes an appearance on several other songs on Williams’ album, as do references to the Bible. “I guess it’s in my blood, as far as both my grandfathers being Methodist ministers,” she says — then adding that her father was agnostic. “I was also inspired a lot by Bob Dylan. Not his Christian phase, but before that. He used a lot of those metaphors, like in ‘Highway 61 Revisited’: ‘God said to Abraham/Kill me a son/Abe said, Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ I loved that!”
The legendary Bobbie Gentry, though in a much subtler way than Dylan or Williams, wrote and sang about social issues in a handful of powerful songs — most notably “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Fancy.” She made an indelible impression on Williams when the latter was a budding singer-songwriter and “Ode to Billie Joe” came out in 1967.
To hear that song playing all over the radio was a galvanizing experience: At the time, the only women folk singers Williams knew of were Joan Baez, Judy Collins and, later, Joni Mitchell — inspiring, but with a very different sound than Williams.
“They all had these higher, beautiful voices, which I could never aspire to. It took me years to come to terms with that and to figure how to use my voice and feel comfortable with it. And when I heard Bobbie Gentry with this smoky, kind of lower register, I went, ‘Wow! This is awesome!’ Not to mention, her songwriting and the way she looked. I was just fascinated by her!”
Because she had so little faith in her vocal range, “I decided early on, I’m gonna concentrate on being a really good songwriter. But then over the years, I started developing a vocal style.” Now, Williams’ voice, rougher and raspier than in years past, is almost as instantly identifiable as that of her early idols.
Williams’ rich history of inspiration is one of many reasons AARP asked her to create a playlist just for us. She’s kicking off a series in which musicians gather their favorite songs exclusively for AARP. These are the musicians your favorite musicians listen to, and not surprisingly — given Williams’ background — Gentry, Johnson and Dylan are among the artists she chose. And not only that, but you’ll discover why she handpicked these favorites.
Listen here, or click through to visit AARP’s Spotify page, where you can save or favorite this playlist and others created just for AARP.
How to add this playlist directly to your smartphone
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your smartphone. To use, open Spotify, click on the Search field in the middle bottom of the screen. Click in the Search field and when you see the camera icon on the top right, click on that. Aim your camera at the code and it will bring up the playlist. To save the playlist, click on the heart.