Professionally, 2020 was set up to be a great year for the celebrated singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams. Over two decades after her breakthrough album, 1998’s Carwheels on a Gravel Road, her 15th album Good Souls Better Angels, with its anti-Trump anthem “Man Without a Soul,” led to Williams being nominated for two Grammy’s (Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song), and then Jason Isbell inducted her into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame a year later. But in addition to the pandemic shutting down life as we knew it for almost everybody in 2020, in March of that year her home was damaged by a tornado that swept through East Nashville, and then late in the year Williams experienced a debilitating stroke that left her walking with a cane and unable to play the guitar. By that next summer, Williams had rehabbed enough to return to the stage opening for Isbell, but it would take longer for her to play guitar again. Here in 2023, Williams is back in the studio, in strong voice declaring that she is “Never Gonna Fade Away,” telling Stories from a Rock N’ Roll Heart.
Very little clarifies one’s perspective on life like a life-threatening health diagnosis followed by months of challenging physical rehab to return to some semblance of a normal, healthy existence, and Williams has returned with a strong statement of purpose in the opening track here, “Let’s Get the Band Back Together.” The song itself may be the kind of feel-good blues boogie jam that any good band could slap together quickly, but given all that Williams and her crew have been through it has a certain resonance and meaning, and the band steps up to play like they too are grateful to come back together: William’s go-to guitarists of late Doug Pettibone and Stuart Mathis, Reese Wynans, who got his start with Stevie Ray Vaughan, on Hammond B3 organ, and drummer Steve Ferrone (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), while singing on the choruses, Williams is joined by Margie Price and Buddy Miller. And given Williams’ literary reputation as a lyricist of note, she adds to the somewhat cliché lyric a nod to the music of “Dylan and the Boss man, we thought we were cool,” acknowledges that life can feel like a rollercoaster ride, and sings “a song for the disappeared/Let’s raise a glass to the best of friends.”
And speaking of the Boss, Bruce Springsteen and his singer/songwriter and E Streeter wife Patti Scialfa, show up to sing backing along on the chorus of “Rock N’ Roll Heart,” a song written by Williams, her husband/manager Tom Overby, and Travis Stevens. Now, you can really only get away with putting “rock n’ roll” into the title of your album once, and even then you better do it justice. Well, this feels like a fast Tom Petty rocker and the guitarists Pettibone and Mathis aren’t wasting this opportunity, and that catchy chorus works as a sing-along anthem. Springsteen also shows up on “New York Comeback,” written with Jesse Malin, providing a compelling echo to Williams on the chorus. But the lyric that will tap your emotions given all that she’s been through to get back on that stage, as Williams sings: “Let me have the final say/One last chance to do it my way/One last shot, one last swing/One final song to sing.”
It’s a sentiment she repeats in “Last Call for the Truth,” a bluesy ballad of “lost youth,” and a recognition that the protagonist may be running out of time to change their ways, something that shows up again in another sad ballad, “Jukebox,” which sees the corner bar, and selections by “Patsy Cline and Muddy Waters” as the only cure to one’s loneliness. Williams has suggested that the person she’s thinking about in her odd, lonely, “Stolen Moments,” is the person and music of Tom Petty: “it’s like a heartbeat, I think about you.”
In “Hum’s Liquor,” Williams’ attention turns to another rocker taken way too soon, Replacements’ original guitarist Bob Stinson, based on memories shared by her husband Overby who grew up in Minneapolis. The song traces the troubled musician’s daily trip down to the local store to buy “his Jack and headed back/to bang on his guitar/and drink away another day/hit it hard and hit it harder.” Early childhood abuse had left him “dragging demons around with you,” and while there is no happy ending to Stinson’s story, perhaps the presence of his Mats’ mate and half-brother Tommy Stinson singing along on chorus, makes this sad tribute is as much an acknowledgement of his pain as it is a cautionary tale.
“This Is Not My Town” is as close to a topical, state of the world song as you’ll find on Stories from a Rock N’ Roll Heart, where Williams decries the powers that be for “playing one against the other…” and playing “on all your fears,” to control and manipulate common folk. The only answer she comes up with is to “shake ‘em up,” “break ‘em up,” and she’s not wrong as far as that goes. But for all that’s going on in the larger world, Williams’ concerns have turned inward for obvious reasons, and the album’s two closing bluesy ballads addresses her circumstance directly, pointing to her sense of resolve. “Where the Song Will Find Me” describes every songwriter’s hope and desire, to be present and attentive in the right place at the right time when inspiration strikes. There’s no doubt that craftsmanship plays a role in an artists life, but many a songwriter has described that special moment when a melody and/or a lyric visits them, arriving like a gift unexpected but always welcome, as she sings that “I know they will find me/when it’s time to/I know they will remind me/when they are ready to be found.”
Then, at the last, as if to answer Neil Young’s now famous line that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” to which some have adopted as a creed that it’s better to “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” Williams offers up her determination to “Never Gonna Fade Away.” No doubt as she was in rehab for her stroke she felt like “nothing’s gonna fix it and I’m getting sick of it/and all I want to do is quit,” but she insists that she’s not going out like that even if there’s plenty of reasons go give up. Ultimately, Williams, her band, and her fans can count on two things. First of all, there’s that voice, a vocal instrument of rare strength, that bespeaks vulnerability as well as resolve, and even here at 70 years of age while still recovering from a stroke that threatened not only her career but her life, she sings with soulful confidence. But ultimately, it’s the humanity, the honesty and authenticity that she brings to her music, and those Stories from a Rock N’ Roll Heart that continue to matter. Turns out there are other options besides fading away or burning out, where living well is the best revenge.
“Rock N’ Roll Heart” / “New York Comeback” / “Let’s Get The Band Back Together”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Tom Petty / Janis Joplin / Bruce Springsteen
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