Lucinda Williams – Stories From A Rock n Roll Heart
I’m not usually a big fan of songs about music. They’re an example of the old “write what you know” axiom, and they can sometimes be great, but seemingly more often shade toward something like Starship’s “We Built This City.” But for someone like Lucinda Williams, who’s been making songs for nearly six of her seven decades before momentarily losing that ability following a stroke in 2020, her return to music – alternately joyful, rough, tragic, nostalgic and tinged with hope – is worth singing about. Her latest album, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, shares a lifetime’s worth of musical memories and relationships. Paired with her recent autobiography, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, her new record is essential to understanding what makes one of our truly great American songwriters the still-essential force that she is today.
Williams has traveled most of her songwriting path by herself, but she opened up to co-writing with her manager (and husband) Tom Overby on her previous album, 2020’s Good Souls Better Angels, On Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, Williams is in full collaboration mode, not just with writing, with Overby joined on several songs by Jesse Malin and Travis Stephens, but also a near-unbelievable list of guest stars. Lead track “Let’s Get the Band Back Together” is a bluesy guitar-and-organ stomper about the renewed energy found in playing and singing again, albeit with slightly less reckless abandon than the early days – “It’s hard to believe when I think back/How we ever stayed on track.” Joining Williams in this celebration of return – from illness, from pandemic shutdown, from whatever keeps one from doing what they love best – are Margo Price, Jeremy Ivey, Siobhan Maher Kennedy, Buddy Miller and Sophie Gault. And that’s just a tee-up for the next track, “New York Comeback,” a chugging rocker which finds Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa chipping in with background vocals as Williams sings of both the last song of the night and starting the closing chapters of her career – “Let me have the final say/One last chance to do it my way.”
Make no mistake, though – all the guests are here out of love and respect, not because Lucinda needs the help. I saw Wiliams at her return show – opening for Jason Isbell at Red Rocks in 2021. Still physically weakened by her stroke and unable to play guitar, her voice nevertheless wielded the same mix of power and fragility it’s always had, and it’s done nothing but gain strength since. Songs like “Jukebox,” though, make the best use of her vocal vulnerability. Joined by Angel Olsen with sweet, subtle harmonies, Williams sings of the kind of loneliness we’ve all endured over the past three years and the comfort found in a short trip to a familiar place – “Thank God for my corner bar/So close I don’t need a car” – even if it’s just a different kind of isolation – “I’m always the last one left/Then I get the jukebox to myself.”
Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart is full of late nights and last calls, and Williams, understandably, is feeling her own mortality, which is only heightened by the loss of those around her. “Hum’s Liquor” is a tribute to the short life of Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson. Keyed by observations from Overby, who lived near Stinson’s package store of choice – “Every morning it was the same/You were walking down 22nd again” – and featuring vocals from brother Tommy Stinson, the song portrays the voyeuristic nature of rock n roll self-destruction – “Everybody wants to see the crash/Until they see the red lights flash.” And Williams memorializes Tom Petty on “Stolen Moments.” The simmering rocker, featuring erstwhile Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone on drums, is nothing more complicated than wishing for another day with her close friend – “In stolen moments/You’re riding with me again.” Williams herself, though, is far from her last call. Album closer “Never Gonna Fade Away” is a subtle, but defiant, refusal to capitulate. Against a list of bad feelings – “And I’m getting sick of it/And all I want to do is quit” – Williams repeats her mantra against fading. Realizing how she very nearly lost it, only to come back across it, she’s promised to herself to keep pushing against illness and time itself as long as her body and brilliant songwriting mind will allow.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Stolen Moments” – I’m a sucker for anything Petty-related, and this track ends in a very Heartbreaker-esque guitar outro.
Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart was produced by Tom Overby, Ray Kennedy and Lucinda Williams, recorded and mixed by Kennedy and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs written by Williams and Overby, with co-writing credits going to Jesse Malin and Travis Stephens. Additional musicians on the album include Steve Ferrone (drums), Steve Mackie (bass), Stuart Mathis (electric guitar), Doug Pettibone (electric guitar, steel guitar), Reese Wynans (B3, piano, Vox Jaguar organ), Ray Kennedy (tambourine, acoustic guitar, Vox Continental organ), Travis Stephens (acoustic guitar), Rob Clores (piano), Derek Cruz (electric guitar), Will Sayles (drums), Jim Oblon (electric guitar), Fred Eltringham (drums), Joshua Grange (electric guitar), Lawrence Rothman (orchestral arrangement), Margo Price (backing vocals, tambourine) and Jeremy Ivey, Siobhan Maher Kennedy, Buddy Miller, Sophie Gault, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Angel Olsen and Tommy Stinson (backing vocals).
Go here to order Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart (out June 30); https://stores.portmerch.com/lucindawilliams/pre-order-stories-from-a-rock-n-roll-heart.html?ffm=FFM_74f0cb96cb29d7f0e6a9f697d7c68bbd
Purchase Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You here: https://sites.prh.com/lucindawilliamsbook
Check out tour dates here: https://www.lucindawilliams.com/tour