Lucinda Williams Wanted to Write Rock Songs Like Tom Petty. She Learned How on Gritty New Album
It’s a wish-you-had-gills type of humid September day in Nashville, but Lucinda Williams is comfortably out of the soup, sitting at the kitchen table of Ray Kennedy’s Room & Board Studio telling tales about life on the road to a gang of touring lifers including Tommy Stinson and Jesse Malin. They’re rare, behind-the-curtain anecdotes, many of which she shares in her superb memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. But in person, hearing them delivered in Williams’ syrupy Southern drawl, they’re especially captivating.
Soon, though, Williams’ husband and manager Tom Overby will summon her back to the control room to listen to her vocal on a song called “Jukebox.” The gang assembled is finishing up work on Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart, Williams’ attitude-heavy new album, and she’s thrilled by what she’s hearing. “I like that,” she says, smiling and tapping her Chuck Taylors to the rhythm.
A few months later, in the early spring of 2023, Williams is at another kitchen table, the one in her Nashville home that she shares with Overby. She’s drinking coffee and still beaming, excited by the guest cameos she’s secured for Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart: Angel Olsen, Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey, Buddy Miller, the Replacements’ Stinson. But chief among them are Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa, who sing on two tracks, “Rock N Roll Heart” and “New York Comeback.” The latter is a song of perseverance and triumph, a message that Williams, who turned 70 in January, holds dear as she continues to recover from a stroke she suffered in 2020.
Aside from being able to form a few chords when she’s writing, Williams can’t yet play guitar onstage. But, boy, can she sing. Aboard the 2023 Outlaw Country Cruise in February, she delivers her vocals with both control and vigor, standing front and center ahead of her band. It’s inspiring to witness and hear; it’s the look and sound of a rock singer. (One who needs to be in future conversations about induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)
“That happens with people who lose one of their senses. The other ones get stronger,” she says. “Maybe that’s part of it. It frees me up to concentrate on my vocals. Everybody has been remarking on that.”
Williams has put out more than a few records that were steeped in the blues, LPs like Little Honey and Down Where the Spirit Meet the Bone. But on Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart, she’s more Patti Smith than Howlin’ Wolf, mostly leaving behind the confines of her beloved South — she’s lived everywhere from Louisiana and Arkansas to Texas and, currently, Tennessee — for the grit and energy of New York City, where she also once called home.
“I wanted to write more rock & roll songs, à la Tom Petty,” says Williams, who opened for Petty at his final show before his death in 2017. “That’s been a desire of mine, but they’re harder to write. When I sit down with my guitar, I go into ballad mode. That’s from my folk days, I guess.”
To achieve the New York bar band sound she sought, Williams enlisted Malin, a Lower East Side fixture, and guitarist Travis Stephens, a longtime member of her road family. Reuniting with producer Kennedy, who engineered Williams’ seminal 1998 LP Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, they wrote compact, raw, and often celebratory rock songs.
“The record before this had heavy, dark [songs] because the time was heavy and dark,” Williams says of 2020’s Good Souls Better Angels, which found the songwriter writing about Donald Trump and the devil. This time she wanted to let loose. “Let’s Get the Band Back Together,” which opens the album, evokes the boozy bonhomie of the Faces with its all-star singalong chorus. “Tom came up with that idea. We wanted the chorus to sound like a bunch of people in a bar singing,” she says, “not with perfect voices.”
Springsteen and Scialfa’s contributions, however, are painstakingly measured and exquisite. Overby says that after he sent the E Street power couple recordings of the songs, they returned 16 different tracks of vocals. On “Rock N Roll Heart,” they provide mostly harmonies, but on “New York Comeback,” Springsteen’s voice is right next to Williams, making for a thrilling chorus duet.
“My god! I still get excited when I hear his voice pop out,” Williams says. “And Patti, bless her heart, sent me an email raving that, ‘Nobody’s writing songs like this anymore and I’m so happy I was able to sing on your album.’ She’s really creative.”
Williams recalls her first time meeting Springsteen, backstage at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, after a gig on his 2005 Devils & Dust solo tour. She loved that album’s graphic song about a prostitute, “Reno,” and said as much to Springsteen. “I told Bruce what a brave songwriter he is. And he said, ‘You are too.’ And I was just…ahhhh,” Williams says.
After the show, they all went to dinner with Springsteen, T Bone Burnett, U2 guitarist The Edge, Malin, and a few others. Gathered around yet another table, more stories were told. Williams and Overby both enjoy recounting that memorable meal, but Williams says she was worried about putting the word “stories” in her album title.
“It implies that they’re more narrative songs on this album,” she says. “But it’s not that kind of album, it’s not Car Wheels.”
Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart doesn’t need to be, though. Sometimes, as Williams herself says, you just need to rock: “We got through the pandemic. Let’s get back together, have some drinks and stay up all night.”