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Blessed are the strong

For much-acclaimed singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, true love travels on a gravel road

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It's true that Lucinda Williams counts the many ways in which blessings come in the title track to her new album, but she's still far from the soft and mushy fool in love some feared she'd become after finally finding domestic bliss. Not our Lucinda.

Released in March on Lost Highway Records, Blessed starts out with a rather vicious kiss-off, "Buttercup," then moves into "I Don't Know How You're Livin'," another song about her troubled brother à la "Are You Alright?" from 2007's West. The third track is "Copenhagen," which begins with the line, "Thundering news hits me like a snowball striking my face and shattering."

"I wrote that about my late manager, Frank Callari, who died suddenly when we were touring over in Europe," explains the L.A.-based artist in a fairly cheerful tone. But clearly, Williams hasn't lost her talent for using vivid imagery to express pain — or the need to get it out in song.

"I don't sit down and think of a theme before I go in to write," she continues. "It's whatever's goin' on in my life at that time. Unfortunately, there's sad stuff that goes on. I mean, that's why I'm an artist to begin with. It's like writing a journal for me or something; I just have to get it out of my system."

Another song, "Seeing Black," was inspired by her friend Vic Chesnutt's suicide; he died on Christmas Day of 2009. Its opening verse:

How did you come up with the date and time?

You didn't tell me you changed your mind

How could I have been so blind?

I didn't know you changed your mind.

"I think I found out about it when I was in the middle of writing songs. It was very sudden and startling and upsetting. Of course, I've dealt with that subject before," says Williams, referring to her 1992 album Sweet Old World and its especially dark track "Pineola."

Kiss of death

And yes, there are more thoughts of mortality permeating Blessed. Even the closing love song, "Kiss Like Your Kiss," contains finality in its words, as she recounts the special nature of each passing season with lines like "We'll never see a yellow so rich .... There will never be another kiss like your kiss." (The song also appears on the Grammy-nominated album, True Blood: Music from the HBO Original Series – Volume 2.)

"These things are gonna happen and of course, the older you get, the more strange or different things you're gonna experience in life," Williams observes. "I just turned 58 [in January], so of course, I'm gonna see life differently than I did when I was 48 and 38 and 28."

Then there's the devastating "Soldier's Song," inspired in part by Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

"I always loved the visual imagery in that song, where he's goin,' 'By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising.' He knows what she's gonna be doing at any given time during the day," says Williams, her Arkansas accent still prominent decades after her departure. "I kind of utilized that concept. I can see why other singer-songwriters would be so inspired by him."

Further inspiration for that one just came from reading the newspaper — "the actual, physical newspaper" — which for Williams is a recently acquired habit. Reading so much about war, she started thinking about how soldiers spend their days, and who they think about.

"I'm always coming up with ideas, I'm never at a loss for that," Williams says. "But I don't sit and finish a song; I don't say, 'OK, I'm gonna write a song a day or a song a week' or whatever. I just keep ideas, I write everything down."

Poetry in motion

Blessed is definitely a departure in one respect: Apart from an incendiary Elvis Costello guitar solo on "Seeing Black," there's no barn-burner cut, no "Get Right With God" or "Joy." It wasn't intentional, she says. Just happened that way. "I just go where the song wants to go," she says, noting that one song which might have filled that bill wasn't quite working, so it went on the back burner.

But despite the lack of rockers, there is, she says, an intensity to this album, which was co-produced by Don Was, Eric Liljestrand and her husband and manager, Tom Overby. (There's also a deluxe version, which features the stripped-down acoustic demos of each song.)

Some of the songs, says Williams, "kind of reminded me of a Jim Morrison vibe, almost. 'The Awakening' sort of reminds me of 'This is the End.'"

Morrison, of course, thought of himself as a poet. Williams has the same gene; her father is renowned poet Miller Williams. But she says writing lyrics really is different than writing poetry, something that's driven home to her every time she tries to pen a poem and shows it to her dad: "He says, 'Honey, I think it wants to be a song.'"

The reverse is also true, she says. He's tried his hand at lyric-writing a few times, giving her lyrics and asking her to come up with some music. But in each case, the words or the meter never quite worked.

Still, father and daughter have done a few evenings of shared poetry and song, and he wrote the vows for her 2009 wedding, which took place onstage at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, Overby's hometown. After the couple came up with the idea, Lucinda wasn't quite sure whether she wanted to go through with it — the onstage wedding, that is. The marriage part, she had no doubts about.

"My dad said, 'You know, Hank Williams got married onstage.' I said, 'OK, that clinches it then. I know we're doin' the right thing.'"

Overby, who has retail and record-label experience in marketing and A&R, also "passed the test" with two longtime Lucinda associates: her booking agent, Frank Riley, and lawyer, Rosemary Carroll. The two industry heavyweights gave him their blessings as both management and husband material.

Of course, Williams admits that they occasionally butt heads, just like any married couple.

"You work through it," she says.

And then you count your blessings. And maybe put them in a song.

scene@csindy.com

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