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At first, it's the slow and lazy Louisiana drawl that sets the mood. Then, it's the way country legend Lucinda Williams earnestly asks you about your family—y'know, the one she's never met.
Talking with Lucinda Williams is like talking with your older sister, except Time magazine never named your older sister songwriter of the year.
Speaking from her house in Los Angeles, Williams is all about being comfortable, especially when talking about her numerous awards and accolades.
"All that award stuff is pretty daunting," she says. "It was back in 2002, but Time made it sound like I was the best songwriter of all time."
Reflective and humble to an extreme, Williams can recast any honor as her just doing what comes naturally. For over three decades, she's has gone from being a bluegrass/folk singer-songwriter to being recognized by many as one of the greatest artists in all of country music, alt- or otherwise.
"A lot of people don't realize how long I've been doing this," Williams says. "It's probably good that I got all those years behind me before I started getting accolades."
The high praise began in 1988 when Williams released her self-titled third effort, and the single "Passionate Kisses" became a surprise indie-rock hit. Ten years later, the critical kudos intensified for Williams' fifth effort, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album that fans and writers alike consistently rank as the singer's best.
Still another decade later, Lucinda Williams' ninth album, Little Honey, hit the streets late last year and once again, critical tongues went a-wagging. Honey has been described as a return to Williams' early rootsy, upbeat style, a far cry from 2001's Essence and 2003's World Without Tears, efforts that are often portrayed as stylistically divergent and overly pessimistic. Predictably, Williams doesn't buy into her latest being labeled a "happy" record.
"It's just silly," she says. "You don't have a happy record. The songs are all different, and happiness is relative. Nobody walks around happy a hundred percent of the time. If I gave you a description of every song, you would understand that not all of them are happy.
"It's just a feeling of optimism," Williams adds with obvious disdain.
Still, there's no denying the glee that Williams and her bandmates bring to a song like "Real Love," the opening cut and first single from Little Honey. Over a killer guitar hook and a pounding rhythm track, Williams muses on the, well, happiness of finding one's soul mate. Perhaps the song is a reference to her most recent squeeze, music executive Tom Overby? Think again, says Williams.
"'Real Love' is not about Tom," she says outright. "Most of these songs were written before I even met him."
Indeed, what may be most interesting about the new album is the career-spanning nature of the material. Williams says "Well, Well, Well" was written in the early '90s, while "If Wishes Were Horses" comes from the singer's time in Austin in the mid-'80s.
"There is definitely a compilation feel to this new record," Williams says. "A lot of these songs were from a more innocent time, so perhaps they have happy beginnings."
Whatever the origin or position they may have in the Lucinda Williams timeline, the songs on Little Honey make a cohesive statement of purpose, bristling with energy and humor to spare—so much so that even a playful run through AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock and Roll" comes across as a thoughtful testimonial of the ins and outs of the music industry. Covering the song was Overby's idea—and it took some convincing to get Williams to go along with the plan.
"I'm pretty picky about who I cover," she says. "I wasn't sure about AC/DC. Hell, I didn't even know the song, but eventually I did get inside it, and I think I made it my own."
Another new track of note is "Jailhouse Tears," a duet with Elvis Costello. Even with Costello's noted affinity for Americana, the pairing is just another example of Williams' ability to cross genres if the mood suits her. Previously, she has collaborated both with artists you'd expect (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris) and some you'd never imagine (Flogging Molly, Yo La Tengo, Greg Dulli and David Byrne).
"I think I met the guys from Flogging Molly at a Springsteen concert," Williams recalls. "I've always been open to a lot of different styles of music."
Such openness hasn't come without a price. The aforementioned Essence and World Without Tears albums featured Williams experimenting with different tempos and textures. Some derisively claimed that her singing style was aping hip-hop.
"I heard people saying that they used to be a fan of mine until I started rapping," Williams says. "It's not like one day I woke up and liked any particular style of music. I kept having to explain it to people. I quickly grew tired of explaining."
Perhaps this fatigue resulted in Williams releasing the more typical West album in 2007. Still subdued and decidedly downcast, the record pointed the way toward the full re-emergence of Little Honey. Williams wrote nearly 30 songs during the sessions for West, and a handful of those ended up on the most recent effort.
"I think that's what's appealing about the new record," Williams says. "I have come full circle. The new one has a little bit of everything, like West Part Two or Car Wheels Plus."
That may be going a bit far, but it's easy to get caught up in Williams' euphoric spirit. At 56, she comes across as invigorated and genuine, a true testament to a life spent making music that matters.
"I still like to go out and kick up my heels," she says. "I never want to be too far away from the hubbub."
Clearly at a good place in her life, Williams knows that her rock 'n' roll dues have now been paid in full.
"I'm definitely more comfortable with myself," she says. "I'm with the person that I want to be with for the rest of my life, and I'm putting down roots."