THE WOMAN IN BLACK: LUCINDA WILLIAMS WITH BILL FRISELL

UCLA Royce Hall - March 4, 2016

By Ross Altman, PhD

Lucinda WIlliamsSteve Earle once said of Townes Van Zandt, “He is America’s best songwriter, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” The author of Pancho and Lefty is now gone, leaving that position vacant. So Time Magazine filled it in 2002 with a cover story on Lucinda Williams called “America’s Best Songwriter.” Her Grammy-winning album Car Wheels On a Gravel Road defined a new voice in American songwriting—one that claimed her roots in poetry as well as song. Her father was a poet.

January 20, 1997, Arkansas poet Miller Williams read his inaugural poem Of History and Hope for President Bill Clinton’s 2nd Inauguration. African-America poet Maya Angelou read a poem for Clinton’s First Inaugural—the first time a poet had graced the inaugural stage since Robert Frost read The Gift Outright at President Kennedy’s inauguration thirty years before on January 20, 1961. It remains to this day the last time a poet has elevated the assumption of power at the presidential inauguration with a poem. In a profoundly ironic and tragic way, Miller Williams, who revered memory, and wrote in his inaugural poem “We have memorized America…If we truly remember, they will not forget,” died of Alzheimer’s and lost the one thing he treasured most.

Like his unrelated namesake Hank Williams, he died New Year’s Day—in 2015. Miller Williams had a daughter to whom he handed down the poetic gene—singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Like Hank Williams, Jr wrote of his old man, “It’s a Family Tradition.” Poetry runs in the family, as sure as blue eyes, blonde hair, and a propensity to certain inheritable diseases. Both Lucinda and Miller Williams suffered from Spina Bifada. She hints at it in the opening lines of her 1993 hit song Passionate Kisses:

Is it too much to ask?

I want a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back…

and does more than hint in an extraordinarily direct new song I’m suffering/Take away the pain. In addition to Lucinda he was the father of the University of Arkansas Press, which he directed for twenty years. In more ways than one, he brought poetry to Arkansas.

Lucinda Williams’ unforgettable voice has won over every performer in country music from Steve Earle to Willie Nelson to Mary Chapin Carpenter (who recorded Passionate Kisses.) She has made hundreds of guest appearances on fellow performers’ albums. From anguished to sultry she touches on every note and emotion in the human vocabulary. If you want to hear the difference between pretty and beautiful, you’ll find it in Lucinda Williams’ voice. But most of all you’ll find truth. Dressed all in black—from dungarees to blouse to jacket to her sunburst Gibson guitar guitar right down to her boots, she evokes the honesty of the Man in Black himself—Johnny Cash—a fellow Arkansas poet, from Dyess, Arkansas. As elegantly dressed as she is, on stage her heart is utterly naked.

A Lucinda Williams concert is not dissimilar from a poetry reading in that she puts all her lyrics on a music stand in front of the microphone—as if she were reading from a book. At first I found it disconcerting, until it dawned on me that she grew up listening to her father read poems from his books (25 in all) and manuscripts, and they performed together on many a stage. Her lyrics stand alone in a way that few song lyrics do—they can be appreciated when read as well as sung; and she has also performed her father’s poems that she has set to music, as she did tonight at UCLA’s legendary Royce Hall—preeminent concert venue on the Westside. The poem is called Dust, and her adaptation was a highlight of the pre-encore portion of the concert, as it was when she sang it on the Tonight Show last week:

It's a sadness so deep the sun seems black

And you don't have to try to keep the tears back

No you don't have to try to keep the tears back

Cause you couldn't cry if you wanted to…

Even your thoughts are dust [4x]

She opened the show with The Ghosts of Highway 20, her new album’s title testament to Louisiana Highway 20, and you might say she is a graduate of Two-Lane U:

I know this road like the back of my hand

Same with the stations on the FM band

Farms and truck stops, firework stands

I know this road like the back of my hand

Southern secrets still buried deep

Brooding and restless 'neath the cracked concrete

If you were from here you would defend me to the death

Along with the ghosts of highway twenty.

Then she invited special guest Bill Frisell whose iridescent guitar-playing gave her music a gorgeous tapestry of lyricism to enhance the lyrics of her songs. It looked like he hadn’t changed clothes since the Skirball Cultural Center concert (just reviewed in these pages)—the muted plaid jacket over his blue jeans and tennis shoes—which Jill Fenimore commented upon, “look just like he dresses at home playing in his living room.” I noticed how much fun he has playing guitar; her regular band members all had solemn to dour expressions, while Frisell’s eyes twinkled and he smiled as though he was having the time of his life. He is a joy to watch as well as listen to. I also noticed Jackson Browne sitting just four rows in front of us—having his picture taken by some local fans who spotted him too. He was applauding as loudly as everyone else.

Lucinda Williams brought Louisiana to Royce Hall in more senses than the title song of her new album. She held her second special guest until near the end, when she brought out the incredible saxophone player Charles Lloyd—whose playing raised the roof on Royce Hall and transported you to New Orleans. It was an unexpected delight and enriched the concert immeasurably—especially when Williams launched into the totally unexpected encore of Bob Dylan’s antiwar classic Masters of War. She mentioned in her introduction that she started singing the song again after 9/11 and aroused some controversy when she did. Then she added pointedly that the song “is still relevant today.” And she wasn’t alone in being drawn back to it—for she discovered that her saxophonist had also recorded the song—and their performance proved it—a fine-tuned riveting duet of her impassioned voice of protest with Dylan’s lyrics and Lloyd’s soul-stirring sax. For one brief shining moment it felt like the world was turning again—toward peace for the first time in decades. Thank you, Lucinda!

If that was the moment of history from her father’s inaugural poem Of History and Hope, Lucinda saved her reverential moment of hope for the end—Sam Cooke’s masterpiece—his 1964 freedom song A Change Is Gonna Come. I was all ready to walk out thinking the concert was over when the audience’s unyielding standing ovation brought her back for that third encore, sat me back down and lifted my spirits once more to believe in all those nearly forgotten ideals from the 1960’s, when Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke gave us hope that The Times, They Are a-Changing and A Change is Gonna Come.

Lucinda Williams has not abandoned these hopes and dreams, and remains an ambassador through music of the most exalted idea of America we are likely to see in our lifetime. This Royce Hall masterpiece performance was the kickoff concert for her 8-week tour of the country. She is singing her heart out on tour when the ideals she left us with in her farewell wish, “Love and Peace, God Bless!” threaten to be drowned out in every night’s newscast. I savor the hope that Lucinda Williams’ honest voice will prevail.

“There’s a place in my heart for you,” she sings in one of her compassionate new songs. She has certainly won a place in mine. If she passes through your town don’t miss her!

With thanks to Phil Rosenthal of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP) for the press pass + 1 and the outstanding seats.


Saturday March 12 at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon Ross Altman performs in their third tribute to the late Pete Seeger—RePete 2016! See their website for details.

Ross Altman performs in the Voice in the Well Production Chimes of Freedom Flashing with spoken word artists Sunday March 20, 2016, 5:00pm to 7:00pm; $10 at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 310-822-3006

Sunday May 15 at 4:30 PM on the Railroad Stage at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest Ross Altman performs his new show When a Soldier Makes It Home: Songs for Veterans and Their Families; for information about their 56th annual folk festival.

Los Angeles folk singer and Local 47 member Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com