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Lucinda Williams Gives up Her Ghosts

Highway 20 Records

Matthew Becklo - published on 02/12/16

Flannery O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" South is the background for her moving new album

In Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” the novelist reflected on what distinguishes Southern writers and their “penchant for writing about freaks”:

“In the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological … it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.”

O’Connor may well have been writing about Lucinda Williams’ latest album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, a heartbreaking journey into the past that’s as moving as it is enlightening.

The similarities between the two women’s lives are striking: both were born in the Deep South (Interstate 20 connects O’Connor’s native Georgia to her native Louisiana); both suffered from congenital disorders inherited from their father (lupus and spina bifida, respectively); and both women had lasting friendships with poets — for O’Connor, Robert Lowell, and for Williams, her father, lauded poet Miller Williams.

But their connection goes deeper. It’s no surprise to learn that O’Connor’s stories had a huge influence not just on Lucinda Williams (“I remember when I first read Flannery O’Connor, when I was 15 or 16, and it just drew me in because I identified with it”) but also on her father, who cited O’Connor as his “greatest teacher.”

That teacher’s lessons are not easy or simple. The opening track, “Dust,” is the album’s Ash Wednesday, drawing the listener into a broken, emptied space on the far side of sorrow. “There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems black,” Williams groans in the opening track with her distinctive voice. “And you don’t have to try to keep the tears back. You couldn’t cry if you wanted to; even your thoughts are dust.” It’s the first of many songs about mortality, from “Death Came” to the heartbreaking “If My Love Could Kill,” which reflects on her father’s slow death from Alzheimer’s disease.

The album has its tender and playful side too. There’s the gorgeous love song “Place in My Heart,” her cover of the Boss’s ode to the working man, “Factory,” and deep-fried, boot-stomping tracks like “Bitter Memory” and “Doors of Heaven.” But even in her brightest musical moments, Williams’ lyrics are pierced by a lance and heavy-laden with the slings and arrows of time. There is a wound at the album’s heart that needs healing, but that first needs naming.

Enter the acoustic “Louisiana Story,” the quiet eye at the center of the storm. It’s a deeply personal look at memories of the rural south: its sights and sounds, its sense of family, roots, and place, and its deep, abiding strain of evangelicalism:

“Her daddy’s kind, didn’t spare the rod
Blinded by the fear and the wrath of the Lord
He’d call us sinners, say you’re going to hell
Now finish your dinner and tell ’em you fell …

God knows it rains in Louisiana
But not enough to wash away sins of the father
God knows Mama loved her daughter
And they say that blood is thicker than water

Out in deep south when I was growing up
Looking back on the sweetness, looking back on the rough”

True to Flannery’s form, these ghosts from her past — impulses of abuse, of ignorance, of blind faith — become the key to her future, and an unexpected conduit of divine grace. “Grace changes us,” O’Connor once wrote “and the change is painful.” With eyes of wisdom, Williams peels back the layers of her own history, not to renounce it or embrace it, but to listen to it, to learn from it, to “sing a new song.”

In the final two tracks of the album, she makes peace with her ghosts; the sweetness and the rough become two sides of one picture. “If There’s a Heaven” is a powerful farewell to a loved one, one filled with a hope for an eternity “beyond the blue,” while “Faith and Grace” brings us back to the gritty, bouncy mood of the intro.

But something has changed.

“My burden is hard to bear
And no one to help me share
But I know I can make the call
‘Cause I know God will hear

It seemed like every door is locked
And I know He’s gonna hear me knock
And I know I’m gonna stand right
‘Cause I’m standing on the rock

There’s a little more faith and grace
To help me run this race
That’s all I need”

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.

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