She turned 62 in January, nearly four months after she released her 11th studio album. And Lucinda Williams thinks she is just reaching the peak of her career.
“I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been,” she told The Star recently. “My voice is better than it was 30 years ago. It’s maturity. I’m kind of an anomaly but I’m better than I was when I was younger. For some people, it’s the opposite.”
She has the accolades to support that. In September, Williams released “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” a recording that became a double album out of necessity: She’d recorded too many good songs.
“We’d cut about 30, and when we got done, we realized we didn’t want to narrow it down to one album,” she said. “We felt like we had a lot of songs that needed to go together.”
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“Bone” is one of her best albums in several years, and its reviews reflect that. They were almost universally positive.
From the British music magazine Mojo: “One of her most wide-ranging and satisfying collections.” The New York Times: “She’s pithy and penetrating, bruised but steadfast, proud of the grain and drawl of her voice.”
In May, the album received two nominations for the Americana Honors and Awards for album of the year and song of the year. Williams is also a nominee for artist of the year.
“Bone” comprises 20 songs cast in various shades of country-soul and -blues. Williams wrote all but two of them: a cover of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia” and “Compassion,” the opening track. She shares writing credits on that one with her late father, the poet Miller Williams. The song is based on one of his poems, a line of which contains the album’s title. Her husband and manager and the album’s co-producer, Tom Overby, suggested she convert the poem into a song.
“We knew we wanted to call the album ‘Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone’ because it just fit,” Williams said. “Then Tom said, ‘Well, is there any way you could take the poem the line comes from and make it into a song? That would really tie things together.’”
Williams spent about three days figuring out a way to navigate the tricky conversion.
“It’s not just a matter of putting chords to original lines in a poem,” she said. “Poems are written so differently than songs. Even if it does rhyme, it won’t have a chorus or a refrain. It was very satisfying to complete it, though.”
“Compassion” is a poem about acknowledging that other people’s bad behavior can be an indication of internal struggle: “You don’t know what wars are going on / Where the spirit meets the bone.” It sets the tone for the rest of the album, which addresses themes like life, love and loss, something Williams is too familiar with.
“The older you get, the more people you lose,” said Williams. “My life’s perspective is very different from what it was 30 years ago. When I write now, I try to tackle those things and figure things out and maybe help someone else figure them out, too.”
The most recent losses in her life occurred after she’d recorded “Bones.” In early December, about two months after “Bones” was released, Ian McLagan died of complications of a stroke. The former member of Small Faces and Faces played keyboards on several of the album’s tracks.
“I’d known him for a while,” Williams said. “He was such a joy to work with, a great musician and a sweet guy who could light up a room. I’ve never heard anyone utter a negative thing about him. He brought a lot to the album in so many ways. It was heartbreaking to lose him, really sad all around.”
About a month later, on New Year’s Day, Miller Williams died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 84. Her father, Williams said, taught her a lot about language and writing.
“One of the main lessons was not to censor myself,” she said. “Not to be afraid to go deep inside and face your demons, to get them out in my writing, that nothing is safe from the mighty pen. He also taught me about the economics of writing and editing. He was a great editor, too.”
“Bones” is barely nine months old, but Williams has already recorded tracks for her next album. One is another of her father’s poems turned into a song. Another is a song she resurrected from decades ago.
“We just cut three more new songs and one is from a poem called ‘Dust,’” she said. “It came out really good. I feel a lot more confident about tackling more (poems). It’s interesting to discover different ways to write a song.
“Another is a really old song I wrote in the ’70s that finally saw the light of day. Tom heard it and really loved it. So I went back and worked on it and made it better and we ended up cutting it.”
Whenever that album comes out, it will be released on her own label, Highway 20 Records. “Bones” was the label’s inaugural release. Highway 20 is an independent label that has a partnership with Thirty Tigers, a music marketing and distribution company based in Nashville.
“It’s best of both worlds,” Williams said. “We get our own label under the Thirty Tigers umbrella, which means we use their staff and distribution and all that, but we get to sign artists to our label and we have complete freedom. We own all the masters, which is huge. And we’re in the process of signing a new publishing deal. It’s really great.”
That next album will be her 12th, and she expects it to be better than “Bones.” She has noticed all the good reviews the album received and admitted that, like the Americana Awards nominations, they are not to be ignored or taken for granted, even when you’re almost 40 years into your career.
“Oh, absolutely they matter,” she said. “And anybody who says they don’t are full of s**t. Of course it matters. Any time you work hard on something and you’re proud of it, you want people to say, ‘Good job; good for you.’ It’s about being recognized.”
Lucinda Williams performs Thursday night at Crossroads KC. Buick 6 opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 to $76.50.