The idea that suffering makes for great art is one of those time-honored rock & roll tropes that even made its way into the title of a 1982 Todd Rundgren album (The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect). While Lucinda Williams has had her share of personal trauma that's informed her work over the past few decades, the happily married musician isn't buying it.
For her, happiness is rather underrated when it comes to the creative process, even if the name of her fine new double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, might suggest otherwise.
"[Being miserable in order to create great art] is a big myth," she says with a laugh over the phone from her L.A. home. "Not that suffering doesn't help your writing, but I can't write when I'm in the middle of feeling like crap. That's the last thing I want to do. Tom Petty said the exact same thing in an interview. There's this whole myth that you're sitting on the side of your bed drinking Jack Daniels while your tears fall onto your guitar and you're writing away. That's not how it works," she laughs.
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone marks something of a new phase for the respected 61-year-old singer-songwriter. She left her former label, Lost Highway, following the release of 2011's Blessed, and signed with the artist-friendly Nashville-based imprint Thirty Tigers, which signed off on Williams' request for her new album to be a double album.
"I wanted to do this back when the West album came out [in 2007]," she explains. "I actually had enough songs for a double album then, but [label head] Luke [Lewis] didn't want to do it at the time for business reasons. He was concerned that they'd have to charge more for it and that the fans wouldn't want to pay that much. So a lot of the songs that came out on Little Honey  were supposed to come out on West. That was frustrating for me because once you have a batch of songs that kind of all fit together, you want to put them together."
It would be easy to worry that Where the Spirit Meets the Bone could go down a slippery slope of creative overindulgence. But Williams managed to deftly sidestep that with a collection of songs that are all killer and no filler. The opening cut, "Compassion," is a piece by her father, renowned poet Miller Williams, that the singer-songwriter put to music. Stripped down to vocals and acoustic guitar, it has the cadence of a murder ballad, with a world-weary aura, and includes the line Williams chose for the album title. (Miller Williams passed away on New Year's Day at age 84.)
From there, the Louisiana native drawls her way through swamp rock that would do Tony Joe White proud (the twang-soaked "Protection"), endearingly pledging her love (the "Harvest"-like "Stowaway in Your Heart") and even gives a girlfriend an emotional hand up (the upbeat "Walk On"). Elsewhere, she goes from railing over the trio of teens wrongly convicted in the 1993 murders of three Arkansas boys (a laconic "West Memphis") to serving up classic tear-in-your-beer sentiment (the honky-tonk ballad "This Old Heartache"). Best of all is a near-10-minute reading of the late J.J. Cale's "Magnolia," which has an ethereal haze hanging over it thanks to the elegant and minimalistic support of guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, whose strumming wraps their singer's vocals in a gauze of delicate riffs and chords.
But for anyone who's even remotely followed Williams' long and storied career, it should come as no surprise that she'd carry on this high level of creative brilliance.
Her catalog includes several albums that are nothing less than stellar, including her 1988 self-titled release, 1992's Sweet Old World and 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the latter of which was a commercial breakthrough that landed her a Grammy.
Since 2007's West, Williams has released four records. It was around this time that she met, fell in love with and eventually married music executive Tom Overby. It doesn't seem like much of a coincidence that this newfound tranquility coincided with this prolific (for Williams) run of records.
"I'm not really sure [where this creative burst] has come from. It's this period in my life and being in this place where I feel that I'm comfortable. It's given me more freedom being happily married and in that kind of situation that's forcing me to push myself to find other things to write about besides unrequited love," she says. "I have to be in a certain state of mind to feel like writing. The other side of it all is that you can draw on those things that created the pain. I just look at it like an endless well where I dip into it and pull stuff out that goes all the way back into my childhood and not just my own life. It's really been liberating to be in that place as a writer."