In Music Playlist Made for AARP, Lucinda Williams' True Grit Shines Through
Collection showcases the three-time Grammy winner’s wide-ranging and eclectic taste in music
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.
Guest Playlist by Lucinda Williams
"Good songs are good songs," the singer-songwriter says, and these are a few of her favorites.
Read about her picks here, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
Highway 61 Revisited album by Bob Dylan
This entire album became a touchstone in my development as a songwriter. It was 1965. I was 12 years old. A creative writing student of my dad’s brought it over to the house. He went in to meet with my father and left the album behind in the living room. I was intrigued by the cover, so I put it on the turntable. Mind blown. Suddenly, the two worlds I was familiar with — the folk music world and the literary world — came together for the first time. Bob Dylan’s genius had altered my world.
Stop Breakin’ Down Blues by Robert Johnson
There’s a reason why they call him the “King of the Delta Blues.” This is where poetry and blues came together. “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” was one of the first songs I learned off of the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume II album. I recorded it on my first Folkways album.
Nothing in Rambling by Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie was a major influence during my early years. She was one of the few women blues singers who played guitar and wrote her own songs. I love the line, “I was born in Louisiana. I was raised in Algiers.”
Flicker by Atmosphere
Some of you may wonder why I would be into hip-hop, but good songs are good songs. I adore this entire album [Southsiders]. This song moves me. [Slug] wrote it about losing a close friend and colleague. If you do happen upon this album, be sure to read the lyrics. I think you’ll dig it.
Strangest Thing by The War on Drugs
This is another one where I love the whole album [A Deeper Understanding]. Actually, I tend to think in terms of albums when it comes to other artists. I love this song for the melody and of course, the lyrics: “If I’m just living in the space between the beauty and the pain/It’s the strangest thing.”
Show Me How to Live by Audioslave
This is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s another where you need to listen to the whole album [Audioslave] and read the lyrics. “You gave me life, now show me how to live.” This line moves my soul.
Southern Accents by Tom Petty
Losing Tom Petty was devastating to me. He and I were becoming good friends. We had a lot in common. He always stayed true to his roots, growing up as a Southern boy — or as we like to say, he never lost his accent. I first learned this song after Tom asked me to perform at his MusiCares [Person of the Year] award show. I feel this song as if it were my own. It always makes me cry when I sing it.
Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry
A Southern woman who played guitar, wrote her own songs, sang in a low, raspy voice — not to mention her killer hairstyle and makeup! I was hooked. This is one of the best songs ever written. It’s really a short story within a song.
Your Love Is Killing Me by Sharon Van Etten
I fell in love with this album [Are We There]. All the songs are great. “Your Love Is Killing Me” in particular is intense in its portrayal of anger and heartbreak.
Anywhere on This Road by Lhasa de Sela
A fascinating artist and one I hope you will discover. I think she’s brilliant. This song portrays “angels and men” in a very unique way.
Pearls by Sade
Sade’s songs are so sonically lush that one might not initially delve deeper — and again I implore you to read the lyrics. “Pearls” is one of my favorites of hers. It’s a song about the plight of poverty. … “Hurts like brand new shoes.” Great line.
Brass in Pocket by The Pretenders
Their first album, Pretenders, rocked my world. Chrissie [Hynde] was, musically speaking, where I always wanted to be. This song is one of my favorites. I love the sassiness of it. “I’m special, so special. I gotta have some of your attention. Give it to me!”
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.
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