Heart Strings

Photo: Michael Halsband/Lost Highway Records

It’s cheap and easy to label Lucinda Williams as the woman of constant sorrow. From her cult hit “Passionate Kisses” through her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, to this year’s double CD, Live @ the Fillmore, Williams’s music captures so many fractionate emotions—longing, lust, anger, and yes, even humor—that the seductive 52-year-old is more properly described as a biographer of the heart. Chris Smith spoke to Williams, who plays the Beacon Theater on July 14, about meeting Dylan, the trouble with New York journalists, and heartbreak of several stripes.

Where’s your tour today?
We’re in Boulder. It’s real pretty. I have a little bit of time off between shows when we get east, and I was thinking about spending some time in New York. But I like to stay on the bus when I’m traveling. And that’s a problem in the city. You can’t just park the bus and leave it. I have to go into the hotel. It’s more of an ordeal.

That’s New York. Ever written a song about the city?
“Six Blocks Away,” that’s about New York. It was written about somebody I knew when I was living in New York and he was living in New York. I always wanted to be part of that whole scene that was happening in New York back in the late fifties and early sixties, the whole writing thing that was going on in the Village, with Ginsberg and Dylan. By the time I was old enough to get there, it was all gone. That was twenty years ago, maybe 1978, and I was working these little day jobs. I was just starting out as a musician, and it was really hard living there, just the day-to-day existence. I started longing for trees and backyards.

Plus, being a southerner in New York, I got kind of the whole stigma of “Where are you from?” You know how provincial New Yorkers can be. When I left, I was happy to get out. There was one highlight, though. I was in Folk City. Tom Pacheco was playing that night, and I got up and did a couple of songs with him. Dylan had come in to hear Tom, because he knew him from the whole Woodstock scene. Mike Porco, the Italian guy who ran Folk City for years and years and years, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine!” I didn’t realize it was Dylan sitting at the bar. He was very unassuming. He’d driven there with this tall, beautiful black woman, I guess one of his backup singers. Mike said, “This is a-Bobby! Bobby Dylan!” I just kind of froze. I gave him a copy of my first album, and he said something like, “Keep in touch, we’re gonna be going on the road soon.”

You’ve been the subject of a couple of famous profiles in New York magazines.
In the Times Magazine and The New Yorker. I hated them both. They really pissed me off and upset me. I felt misunderstood and betrayed. The Times Magazine, that guy came in when I was recording Car Wheels, and I trusted him, and it all came back to bite me in the ass. The Bill Buford thing, I felt the same way. I asked him to try to be discreet when he talked about members of my family, and he ignored all that. What is the deal with the New York magazines?

Maybe we identify too much with your neuroses. Speaking of family, your mother sounded like a complicated and interesting person. I was sorry to hear of her death.
Thank you. It seems like it just happened yesterday, not last year. I feel like I’ve just barely scratched the surface as far as the songwriting that’s gonna come out of that, though we’ve recorded some new songs that relate to her, and I’ve been playing a few in the shows. One is called “Fancy Funerals.” It goes along like those old mountain songs that go, “Don’t put no flowers on my grave, the money could be better spent on covering the bills.” I’ve got another one that looks at pain as it travels through the human body, actually visualizing it as it tries to push its way out. It works its way out through the tears in your eyes, and the tears run down and connect with something else. That song just kinda fell out one day.

So you’re making a new album? You’ve had a lot of trouble finishing them in the past.
I’ve got 23 new songs, and we put down the basic tracks in April. Now I’m kinda trying ’em out on the audience and seeing how people respond. Then we’re gonna go back in the studio in October and actually finish the record. By that time, the songs have gotten all good and greased up. I’ve got enough for two different records. I’ve got a bunch of songs that are real stone country: George Jones–Tammy Wynette–Loretta Lynn country. My style of country. Then there’s these songs that are more Delta-blues kind of style, real raw. Then there’s more pop songs. And edgy, bluesy rock songs. But it’s the same old subjects. There’s only a few things you can write about: life, death, love, sex.

You’ve had a long run of bad breakups, especially with guys who were bass players in your band. Anything new on the romantic front?
Well, I’m still living by myself. [Long pause] My current bass player is already married, and the other guys are all hooked up and happy. And I’m still travelin’ around. I just kind of live in this state of traveling limbo. There was this one tiny little short-lived love affair that started and ended in a couple weeks’ time. I’ve got about five or six songs out of that one.

That’s very efficient.
[Laughs] Yeah. But painful.

Heart Strings