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Like just about all of us, Lucinda Williams has not been able to get away from the news cycle these past few years. On the song “Bad News Blues” from her new album Good Souls, Better Angels, she sings “Bad news all around / No matter where I go, I can’t get away from it / Don’t you know I’m knee deep in it.”
On Good Souls, Better Angels, Williams wades through the bad news to deliver her most pointed and topical album to date. She is particularly unsparing in singing about Donald Trump, who she calls “the worst president we’ve ever had in the history of the United States.”
NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Lucinda Williams about experiencing blow back for speaking out on current issues, the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit her home in East Nashville and getting sick of writing songs about unrequited love. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above and read on for a transcript of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Mary Louise Kelly: I should start by noting what a strange time it is to release an album. Are you hunkered down like the rest of us?
Lucinda Williams: Yeah, hunkered down just like everybody else, in our house in Nashville. We had just moved in right before this. First the tornado hit and then the pandemic. I asked my husband Tom [Overby] the other day: “Are we going to have locusts next?” It’s the whole biblical thing; it feels like that.
Is it weird to drop an album and not be able to tour and perform it and see people’s reactions?
I think I’m in a better position than a lot of other people because I don’t have a 9-to-5 job and financially we’re OK. I get depressed when I think about a lot of other people who can’t make their house payment and pay their rent and everything right now, because we don’t have the kind of government — I guess we’re not set up to help the working people of this country the way some other countries have been able to do, so people can get by.
Lets go to this new album and how it fits in. When you were writing these songs, what was on your mind? What was it that you wanted to say when you were writing this?
I was going to say earlier when we were talking about “Not a good time to put an album out”: Ironically enough, [for] this particular album, this is probably the perfect time for it to come out.
Why? How so?
Because of what’s going on. Besides the pandemic, we’re dealing with the worst president we’ve ever had in the history of the United States. So the songs are very relevant to what’s happening right now. What I was thinking about when I was writing the songs was either what’s going on now — the state of the government and the way things are — or five years ago. I’ve always wanted to write more topical songs.
So what changed? You said you’ve always wanted to write more topical songs. You’ve been doing this for decades. Why now?
It’s very challenging, I think. I think most songwriters would agree that it’s much easier to write an unrequited love song than anything. Those are the easiest ones of all.
And that resonates with everybody.
Yeah. But I was always drawn to really good protest songs or topical songs, ones like Bob Dylan wrote in the ’60s like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” those kinds of songs. If you look at my other albums — it probably started on the Blessed album, [but they’re] not protest songs as much as just songs about humanity. And I have another one called “Soldier’s Song” that was on that album; that to me is an anti-war song.
To tell you the truth, this probably came about as a result of me meeting Tom and getting engaged and getting married, finding my soulmate. And also realizing that I can’t continue to write unrequited love songs for the rest of my life — which is a good thing. I’d already wanted to write about other things more, and delve into other topics more besides unrequited love. In a way, it was really liberating, because it kind of forced me as an artist to delve into other subject matter.
Even though these are songs about modern issues, it sounds like on one level you’re taking a cue from a way earlier era, from protest and political music from the ’60s and ’70s?
Yeah, cause I was very active back then. At the age of 16, I was reading books like Autobiography of Malcolm X and Dick Gregory and going to anti-war demonstrations and handing out SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] leaflets at school, getting kicked out of high school for not saying the pledge of allegiance. So it’s always been in my blood.
You talked about, in your words, “the worst president in history,” and I want to talk about a song on the album called “Man Without A Soul.” I’ve read interviews where you have hinted at who you wrote this song about, and I wondered if you would tell us?
Tom brought it to me and he said “I’ve got this great idea for a song: ‘Man Without A Soul.’ ” And at first I said, “Well, everybody’s got a soul,” and it reminded me a little bit of the line in that Neil Young song, “Even Richard Nixon Has Got Soul.”
I didn’t take to it right away. I didn’t want to have a song that was like obviously “Oh, this is about Trump.” But Tom was telling me “Don’t tell people it’s about Trump.” And I said “I’m not telling people that, but they’re telling me that, because it’s obvious.” But then Tom said “Well, it could be about Mitch McConnell, too.”
Who’s it about?
To me, it’s about Trump, just because that’s who I was thinking of. But Tom came up with some of the lyrics and for him, he was thinking about this abusive relationship that I was in before I met Tom. He said, “I think about that guy as much as I do Donald Trump when I hear this song.”
To me, I feel like it’s about the state of things in the country, the person or people who are in charge — we all know the president is not the only one. He has people leaning in and telling him what to do.
Do you worry about being outspoken when some people in your audience might feel alienated?
I’m kind of starting to come to terms with that. I didn’t actually think that I would have people like that, who were fans of mine. I saw it happen a little bit before Obama got elected. I was performing in Minneapolis at [the music venue] First Avenue and I started singing my song “Well Well Well.” It was right when I found out that Ralph Stanley had come out in support of Obama, which I thought was just wonderful, and I said something about it from the stage before I sang this particular song, which I said was inspired by the music of Ralph Stanley — “Isn’t it wonderful Ralph Stanley came out in support of Obama?” So I started singing this song right after I said that, and an older gentleman with his two daughters or granddaughters got up and walked out.
I’ve had a little bit of this from time to time. Right after 9/11, I started performing Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” because I thought, “Well, this is an appropriate song to do right now.” And I got some negative feedback about that.
Does it bother you?
It does bother me, absolutely. Some of it can be very pointed and very mean. There was an article that came out in the New York Times; oddly enough the title of the article was something like “Where Is The Soul of Donald Trump?” Completely unrelated to the song. We posted it on my Facebook page, a link to the article and a link to the song “Man Without a Soul.” So, I’m looking at it and all of a sudden, I see the comments rolling in and oh my God.
What were they?
Everything from “I was a fan of your music before, but I’m not anymore” to “You sing like you’re having a heart attack.” This is the one that got me: One of them said “I thought you were a compassionate person. You wrote that song ‘Compassion.’ Where’s your compassion?” That one really got me. I am a compassionate person! But I get angry, too. It’s a song. It’s supposed to describe a feeling, and my frustration and my anger, like a lot of other people in this country are feeling right now.
I see this all the time. I see this with other artists: people saying “Shut up and sing. Don’t get involved in politics. That’s not your job.” Well sorry, I beg to differ. Go back and listen to Woody Guthrie. It is my job as far as I’m concerned.
It gets you all riled up, but that’s a good thing. It’s good to get riled up. What I hate worse than anything is apathy. I’d almost rather someone tell me what they think right to my face. At least have an opinion, rather than this “I don’t know, I don’t care kind of thing.”
This is a moment for anger, and also a moment when so many people are trying to be aware of kindness and tenderness and taking care of others. There’s a song on here that got me thinking about that: “When the Way Gets Dark.” The lyrics are “Don’t give up / Take my hand / You’re not alone.” What’s that like to sing in this moment?
It feels wonderful to sing that. I want to put the feeling out there that there’s a positive outcome to all of this, and I do feel very positive about things and where things are going to be. I believe in the goodness of people. There’s been some mistakes made, and we need to fix them.
This does remind me of what happened in the ’60s, when we were in Vietnam, and also the Civil Rights movement. It took those kinds of things to bring people together. That’s how I look at this time now. It has woken a lot of people up.
So when you say you’re hopeful, what’s giving you hope?
Just my own inner strength and the compassion that I see in other people. Right after Tom and I moved into this little house in East Nashville, the tornado hit, and we went outside the next day and witnessed the damage. We were lucky compared to some of our neighbors. But the first thing we saw was this car pulled up with a flatbed in the back of it and perfect strangers — a family, a guy with his kids — running and picking stuff up and throwing it in the truck. And they came up in our front lawn and started picking things up. It moved me to tears. That’s what keeps me going, I guess: The good in people.
NPR’s Gabe O’Connor and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.