There are a number of stereotypes conjured by the mind when someone mentions “the South.” Whether it’s the comfort food, country music or casual racism, the Deep South in particular has proven to be an irresistible backdrop for artists of all kinds. One need only look to Nic Pizzolatto’s credits for the inaugural season of True Detective to find the sort of spooky mysticism that the Spanish moss-covered trees of Louisiana inspire.
And that, fittingly, is where Americana legend Lucinda Williams finds a setting for The Ghosts of Highway 20, her 12th release of original material over more than 30 years in the music business. The setting — a worn highway that stretches through Florida, Louisiana and Texas — is simultaneously as common as any other highway and remarkable enough to be the backdrop for these incredible tunes.
The album is gloomy and hopeful, a collection of traveller songs that wander through the mind sort of aimlessly. These are tracks that can be listened to independently, sure, but in the context of this entire album, they function as a sort of living history for Williams’ life. They are beautifully honest but never overwrought or saccharine. To say that Williams, the daughter of a poet, is a wordsmith is a massive understatement.
Ghosts’ title track sets the thematic tone for the album, a classic ode to the road, of the kind written by so many traveling musicians. In this track, Williams plays the wise elder, acknowledging the pain and hell that she endured to get to where she is. The lyrics are impossibly potent — “Every question and every breath/Every exit leaves a little death." They're enough to punch you in the stomach if you can feel exactly what she’s talking about in your bones.
To put these songs into the context of country music’s current obsession with dirt roads and backroads and roads in general will leave you feeling somewhat embarrassed. It’s easy enough to think that you never want to hear a song about a truck or a dirt road ever again, but then these tracks come along and prove that it’s not the subject matter that is country music’s current problem, it’s the folks they’ve got singing about it.
Which is why this record leaves such a lasting impression. Even if you have never experienced any kind of heartbreak, Williams makes you feel like you have. It’s hard not to get angry and sad all at once while listening to “If My Love Could Kill,” the angry lament Williams wrote about her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. These songs are educational in a philosophical sense, an artist speaking to both her younger self and contemporaries who could desperately use the advice. It’s subtle, though — never preachy or condescending. It’s the kind of advice you would take without second-guessing.
There is also a great deal of love for Williams’ home state, Louisiana. The ever-present bluesy riffs are lush and indulgent, creating a finished product that would sound perfectly at home in the clubs of New Orleans. Hints of jazz, funk, country and roots music blend seamlessly to produce a sound that is at once uniquely Lucinda Williams and at the same time a broader expression of what American music really is.
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And then, of course, there is Williams’ gravelly voice that rumbles through each of these songs. With less well-worn vocal cords, these lyrics might be a little too poetic, but Williams’ distinct growl gives them just the right dose of edge. The comparison to Bob Dylan comes naturally, but listening to Williams is infinitely easier. Her voice is perfectly measured, as if the appropriate dose of emotion was metered and injected directly into the lyrics from her soul.
Williams picks up the tempo on “Bitter Memory,” a perfect break-up song and the closest that this record gets to really high energy. This is the track where Williams’ voice truly shines, showing off the goosebump-inducing growl on the higher notes and the more intense moments. This might be a voice that’s enough to convince you to stay away from cigarettes from now until the rest of time, but it’s also one that settles perfectly over these exquisitely produced tracks.
If Williams’ insta-classic 1998 release Car Wheels on a Gravel Road wasn’t enough to convince you that she also deserves a place in the songwriters canon right next to Dylan, surely this album will. Few, if any, women have managed to earn their place amongst the songwriter gods, at least as far as music fans are concerned, but Williams is one of the easiest cases to make when you’re talking musical sainthood.
It isn’t easy to pin this release into a particular genre, and that may be what is most exciting about it. It is, in its heart, Americana music, and that means incredible things for this once-fledgling genre that didn’t even have its own category at the Grammys until about six or seven years ago. Perhaps most important, though, it proves that songs written about highways and broken hearts can be nuanced and thoughtful without having to play stupid to be relatable.