Lucinda Williams was fittingly on the road when she got the idea for her new album, “The Ghosts of Highway 20.”
The Americana pioneer, dubbed “America’s Best Songwriter” by Time magazine, had just finished her show at the renovated Cox Capitol Theatre in Macon, Georgia, when it all clicked.
“Macon holds a special place for me because that’s where my dad took me downtown to see this blind preacher-street singer by the name of Blind Curly Brown, who played all Blind Willie Johnson songs,” says Williams, calling from her Los Angeles home. “That’s where I first heard ‘God Don’t Never Change.’ . . . Even though I was only 5 or 6 years old, it still impacted my little brain.”
Williams says they were also living in Macon when her late father, the poet Miller Williams, took her to meet the author Flannery O’Connor. (“I don’t remember much,” says Williams, adding that O’Connor, along with Eudora Welty, became a major influence on her writing. “But she raised peacocks and he said while they were meeting inside, I ran around and chased the peacocks.”)
“As we were leaving that night on the tour bus, I’m looking out the window and seeing these exit signs for these other towns,” she says. “Vicksburg, Mississippi — where my brother was born. Jackson — where my sister was born.”
Looking at a map later, Williams realized that at pretty much every stop on Highway 20, there was a memory for her and a story to tell. And it reminded her of the process behind her Grammy-winning breakthrough “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”
“The difference is that I’m now 20 years older or whatever,” says Williams, now 63. “Both of my parents were still living when I wrote ‘Car Wheels’ and now both of my parents are gone. There’s just a different perspective. When I sat down to write ‘Ghosts of Highway 20,’ I wasn’t sure. What am I going to say that I haven’t already said in other songs? Particularly in ‘Car Wheels’ — in ‘Lake Charles’ and ‘Jackson.’ I figured it out. When you’re at a different time in your life, you’re going to see things differently.”
“The Ghosts of Highway 20” certainly is different. It’s somehow deeper. It’s more ambitious. And it’s all hers, the first on her own label, Highway 20 Records, a subsidiary of the independent label Thirty Tigers.
“It’s kind of surprising the way people are reacting to it,” Williams says. “I was just on Steve Earle’s radio show and he told me, ‘I haven’t heard you like this before.’ ”
Earle isn’t alone in noticing. “The Ghosts of Highway 20” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Folk Albums chart and No. 3 on its Rock Albums chart.
Part of that is due to the addition of guitarist Bill Frisell to Williams’ core band of collaborators.
“There’s just a uniqueness he brings to things,” she says. “I keep thinking, ‘How am I going to make another album without Bill Frisell? . . . He can play anything — any sort of jazz, Jimi Hendrix — and you can hear that on the album.”
You can also hear Williams taking on new challenges with her songwriting. She opens the album with “Dust,” a reworking of her father’s poem that brings it to life and starts off the melancholy journey by repeating “You couldn’t cry if you wanted to” like a chant.
She follows that with the stunning “House of Earth,” based on lyrics by Woody Guthrie that his daughter, Nora, shared with Williams after they met at a music festival in Germany and talked “leftist socialist politics.” “She said, ‘Lucinda, I thought of you — if anybody could tackle this, it’s you,’ ” Williams says. “It’s a little racy. It’s not ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ When I read the lyrics, I went, “Oh. OK.” But then, of course, I’m going to take this on. It’s an honor.”
In fact, it’s a sensual poem about how a prostitute can play an important part in keeping a relationship together. And Williams debuted it at a Woody Guthrie tribute at the Kennedy Center, which Nora Guthrie loved. “As I was walking off the stage, she said, ‘That’s got to be the first time anybody’s ever sung a song about a prostitute at the Kennedy Center,’ and she had this big smile on her face,” Williams says.
These days, Williams has a big smile on her face as well, excited about hitting the road to promote the album, including a weeklong run at City Winery in Manhattan starting Sunday, March 13,. She also enjoys running her own record label with her husband-manager Tom Overby.
“It’s just starting, but it’s been great,” says Williams, pleased that she has been able to release two double albums in a row. “You find yourself breaking rules just because you’re in charge. . . . I’m in a really good place right now.”
Lucinda Williams has long been hailed for her songwriting skills, but one skill that gets downplayed is her ability to interpret songs, something she has done with increasing frequency in recent years.
Here’s a look at some of the best:
FACTORY (Bruce Springsteen) She gives the Northern Jersey union man anthem a bit of Southern swagger and a heavy dose of the blues to grand effect.
GOD DON’T NEVER CHANGE (Blind Willie Johnson) Williams’ powerful, twanging delivery of Johnson’s simple gospel blues holds its own against some raucous bluesy riffs to create a stunning hymn.
TRYING TO GET TO HEAVEN (Bob Dylan) Williams balances the desperation of Dylan’s lyrics with a sunny, ’70s country-rock arrangement to create even more tension than the original.
CAN’T LET GO (Randy Weeks) Her raw twist on Weeks’ more straightforward country original gives the song a sharper edge and a sly, sexy feel.
RAMBLIN’ ON MY MIND (Robert Johnson) There’s a sweetness to her voice on her debut album that quickly shifted to something deeper on her own songs, but it fits well with this blues classic. — GLENN GAMBOA
WHO Lucinda Williams
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. March 13, 14, 16 and 17, City Winery, Manhattan
INFO $75-$95; 212-608-0555, citywinery.com