On her 12th studio album, “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” Lucinda Williams explores a variety of themes: death, loss, the passage of time.
The opener, “Dust,” features the words of her late father, poet Miller Williams, set to his daughter’s music, and it frames much of the rest of the album. “There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems black / And you don’t have to try to keep the tears back / ’Cause you couldn’t cry if you wanted to.”
Miller Williams died on New Year’s Day 2015, after years of battling Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85. His life and death inspired several songs on “Highway 20,” including “If My Love Could Kill” and “If There’s a Heaven.” The album also includes “Death Came,” a song Williams wrote for her mother, who died in 2004.
Williams said she didn’t set out to write a grief-themed album, and several of the songs on “Highway 20” are about other matters. But she also couldn’t help but write about her pain and loss.
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“I do it for myself to help me process the experience,” said Williams, who performs in Kansas City on Sunday. “Writing for me has always been very therapeutic and cathartic. When you’ve lost both of your parents, that’s a pretty heavy thing. I don’t think twice about whether I should write about it. It’s another period in my life.
“Writing about it really does help dealing with it. I guess there’s more of that on this album. It wasn’t necessarily intentional. That’s just what was happening in my life, and those songs felt right together.”
This period of her life gave the song “Death Came” a new context. Williams wrote it not long after her mother died, but she left it alone, waiting for the right time to record it.
“Sometimes you try to record something and put it on an early record and for whatever reason it doesn’t work, it doesn’t click … it just isn’t the right time,” she said. “This record seemed like the right time.”
Williams, who turned 63 in January, said that the older she gets, the more life has presented sources and inspirations for songs, moments like the death of a parent.
“I feel like that’s the case for me; maybe that’s because I grew up around poets and short-story writers who were writing well into their — well, until they died,” she said. “My father once told me that poets didn’t reach their peak till they were in their 50s or 60s.
“It’s the opposite of the rock ’n’ roll music world, where it seems like lots of people, once they pass 30, just kind of fizzle, with the obvious exception of people like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
“A lot of songwriting is basically write about heartache and unrequited love, the kind of stuff you deal with mostly when you’re younger. But that’s all they feel like they can write about, and eventually you’re going to run out of things to write. I feel like there are a lot of other things to write about.”
On “Highway 20,” one of those things was her childhood, which she revisits in “Louisiana Story.” Williams said the song is kind of a sequel to “Bus to Baton Rouge,” from her “Essence” album, released in 2001. The topics may be similar but they come from different perspectives.
“Your perception is going to change as you get older and especially when you lose a parent,” she said. “ ‘Louisiana Story’ is kind of Part 2 of ‘Bus to Baton Rouge,’ which is about my childhood and my grandmother’s house, the grandmother on my mother’s side.
“Those are the same grandparents I talk about in ‘Louisiana Story,’ only this time I’d lost my mother. I wrote ‘Baton Rouge’ probably 20 years ago. I was in my 40s and my mother was still alive. Now she’s gone and I’m in my 60s, and I don’t know if I could have recorded that song if she were still alive. It’s pretty intense.”
“Highway 20” includes a cover of the Springsteen song “Factory,” a song she chose for a few reasons, including the death of the father of her manager/husband, Tom Overby.
“I’ve always loved that song,” she said. “We were doing some shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco during the Occupy Wall Street movement, so we worked up that song to dedicate to that.”
But they decided to record it and include it on the new record for another reason, one that fit the album’s unofficial theme.
“Tom’s dad worked in a factory in Minnesota for 30-plus years,” she said. “He had just passed away, so that was another reason. It was a tribute to him.”
After she and Overby got married, Williams heard from fans who wondered whether love, marriage and happiness might blunt her songwriting edge or sap her of material. No chance, she said. Life and fate have their ways of providing plenty of inspirations.
“People would say, ‘What are you going to write about now?’ ” she said. “So I took it as kind of a challenge to pursue other subjects. It has been inspiring to look for and discover other things to write about.”
Lucinda Williams performs Sunday at Crossroads KC. Buick 6 opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28 to $76.50. See crossroadskc.com.