Steve & Lucinda’s Sit-Down: Woody, Bernie & The Roads More Traveled
It took a long time and a trip out to sea for Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams to finally sit down and have a chat. But being on the first annual Outlaw Country Cruise aboard the Norwegian Pearl, Earle and Williams found the time to reminisce about their more than 30-year relationship.
“I have a long-term investment in your music because I was kind of there for Car Wheels,” said the guitarist who also doubles as a radio show host of his own Hardcore Troubadour Radio Show for which this was aired on Sirius XM Outlaw Country.
“You were more than kind of there,” the woman he calls “Lu” shot back in deference to the pivotal role he played as one of the producers of her landmark album.
“We have a lot of the same geography in common,” Earle was saying as he was beaming about her new album The Ghosts of Highway 20. “It’s hard not to write about roads and geography when you do this for a living because you often wake up every day somewhere different.”
“People say to me, ‘Your songs are all about towns,’” Williams related. “I remind them that the whole history of America has to do with traveling and moving” she said, citing Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac.
The seed of the title of her new album was inspired by a trip to Macon when she played at the historic Fox Theater. Her husband and manager Tom Overby began talking about the significance of the south and Highway 20 which runs through some of the towns in which she grew up. Leaving the classic southern town that hadn’t changed in years, Williams began seeing exit signs for the towns that connected the years of her life. The road stretches through Vicksburg, where her brother was born, Jackson, the birthplace of her sister; and Monroe, Louisiana where her mother resided and was laid to rest. Initially Williams admits she was reluctant to consider it as subject matter having already written the songs “Jackson” and “Baton Rouge” and exploring her childhood in Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
“I didn’t know what else to say,” she remembers thinking. “I sat down and finally figured out what I was going to write in the song so as not to repeat myself. The song was one of the last to be written.”
Earle explored the parallels of their lives. He once lived in Williams’ birthplace of Lake Charles. When Hurricane Carla devastated his house, the family moved to Texas. His father wanted to be a pilot but raising a young family, decided to become an air traffic controller in Jacksonville, Texas.
“I first heard of you from Mickey White,” Earle said of the guitarist who backed the late Townes Van Zandt. Living in Houston, Williams was playing with White and Rex Bell, who, in addition to backing Van Zandt, had played behind Lightning Hopkins. Williams went to Sugar Hill Studios where she and Earle agreed the best Lightning Hopkins records were made. The sessions were at night and a surprised Williams came in to find drums had been overlaid by a player brought in by the studio’s co-owner Mickey Moody. One day the studio called and said “We haven’t been paid.” The story she said is that Moody split town with all the money.
“Those were the days,” she laughed.
Earle followed-up with a question. “How did you get from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast?”
Lucinda recalled how she was living in Austin with a man by the name of Clyde who she late wrote about in “Lake Charles.” Things weren’t going too well and she knew it was time to go. Williams left for Los Angeles where she got a development deal with CBS.
Earle said something like this would be unheard of today. “I didn’t know what advice to give Justin,” Earle said of his son in today’s music business.
Although CBS passed on Williams, it allowed her enough living expenses for six months during which time she made a demo tape with Garth Hudson, David Mansfield and members of NRBQ. it attracted the attention of the British label Rough Trade which had an office in San Francisco. It led to her self-titled third album.
“I had been turned down by everybody,” she added of the major labels including Rhino and Sugar Hill. “They didn’t know how to market me.”
Williams recalls a meeting with an Elektra Records staffer who told her, “I think you’re on to something but you need to go back to the drawing board and work on some of these songs.” After asking the question, “Well what do you mean?” and asking for a few examples, he conceded that the songs didn’t have any bridges. Feeling disheartened, Williams went home and studied the lyrics of her Neil Young and Bob Dylan albums only to find they didn’t have many bridges.
“I was told I needed to have choruses,” Earle shared saying most in the business know what they know but still haven’t written a song. Earle made the observation that another thing he and Williams have in common is being folk singers.
“The job we’re doing was invented by Bob Dylan but without Woody Guthrie, that doesn’t happen.”
“I listened to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger before I ever heard of Bob Dylan,” Williams recounted, fondly recalling the 10” cardboard records on Folkways called Songs To Grow On which were marketed as kid’s records.
Earle observed that Guthrie didn’t write melodies and instead borrowed them.
The democratic values ingrained in Williams were fostered by her father, the poet and noted author Miller Williams. His passing was on January 1, 2015, the same day Williams points out that both Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt passed away. Her godfather was her father’s best friend, George Haley, the brother of Roots writer Alex Haley and among one of the first black students at the University of Arkansas in the 50’s, prompting Williams to say “he went through what you can only imagine.” Williams’ father knew a civil rights lawyer in Jackson to review her original $500 contract with Folkways.
Williams, whose grandfather was a Methodist minister, describes him as a Christian in the true sense of the word, someone who believed in equal rights for everyone. In 1969 during the Vietnam War, he and his wife both wore black armbands. Her grandmother was stopped at the grocery store and asked, ‘Did someone die?” She replied, “Oh yes, thousands and thousands.”
Recounting how her grandfather was a conscientious objector in World War 1, Williams recalled how her father described him as a “socialist democrat.”
“Which is exactly what Bernie Sanders is which is why I’m supporting him,” she added.
“You come across knowing Woody Guthrie honestly,” Earle concluded of his friend who adapted Guthrie’s “House of Earth” on the new album.
The two then discussed the recent revelation in the Huffington Post that Woody Guthrie had once lived in an apartment complex owned by Donald Trump’s father. He had written some lyrics for “I Ain’t Got No Home” that addressed the lily-white neighborhood that Trump called “Beach Haven.”
With that, she picked up her guitar and sang the song that had been handed down through generations and suddenly seemed especially relevant with its newly discovered verse:
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
“Woody by God Guthrie,” Earle declared at the song’s end.
Williams had time for one more, the poignant “If There Was a Heaven.”
In her intro, Lucinda slipped in a fan girl plug, saying she would love to hear Laura Cantrell record it one day.