By nearly all accounts, Lucinda Williams is the undisputed queen of Americana. Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, recently passing its 20th anniversary, is a desert island record for nearly anyone who’s had the privilege of settling down with its songs. Full of nearly interminable heartbreak, its characters somehow keep picking up the pieces to start again.
And so, Lucinda rolled into DC with the Drive-By Truckers and Erika Wennerstrom to play The Anthem on an unseasonably warm night recently.
Like any good rolling stone, Lucinda keeps moving, and it seems like it’s always been that way. In the middle of the set, she played “Dust,” a poem written by her father — the late poet Miller Williams — and told a story about how his poem featured at Barack Obama’s inauguration, pride beaming from her face. There is a kind of connectivity between Lucinda and her father — her songs are largely poems set to music, especially the last few records, and the poet’s ethos has infused her life. She spent her childhood moving from town to town with her family, living in Mexico, Chile, and all over the South. Her education came as much from the books she read as from anywhere else; after being expelled for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, her father gave her a list of books to read.
Onstage, Lucinda brought up Flannery O’Connor, eliciting a loud cheer and a moment of celebration from Lucinda — after all, what other musician could mention an author and have their fans cheer it? — and it’s impossible not to see that influence. In many ways, Lucinda’s catalog contained the same themes as O’Connor’s stories, her novel. Lucinda’s songs were redolent with revelation.
On Feb. 8, Lucinda played songs from across her discography, including three from Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. The night started with “Protection” from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and “Out of Touch” from Essence, before she sang “Drunken Angel” from Car Wheels. When I talked to my friend about this song, I called it a wide-open eulogy for Blaze Foley, though I don’t remember when or why I learned it. It is an anthem for a certain kind of person too big and too weird for the world.
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Lucinda led the band through another eulogy, “Lake Charles,” the most bittersweet of Car Wheels songs about Clyde Woodward, who died before she got to say goodbye. It’s a helluva song, grappling with the impossible in a way only Lucinda can. Another highlight of the set was the song “Bone of Contention,” which has never found its way to an album — as Lucinda said, it never quite fit — but it sure makes sense loud and live. I found myself singing along to a song I’d never heard before within only a few verses, my lips moving without knowing the words.
During the show, Lucinda took the time and made the effort to emphasize how much she loved The Anthem — the place and the crowd. She called it one of the best venues she’d ever played, shouting to the crowd how awesome they were on at least three occasions (one of those times to praise us for cheering Flannery O’Connor). Between songs, she smiled at the audience, periodically waving, occasionally telling small stories.
Shortly thereafter, Lucinda played “Atonement,” the song that first hooked me as a high schooler (I worked backwards to Car Wheels from World Without Tears). She then introduced her band, The Buick 6 — comprised of Butch Norton on drums, Stuart Mathis on guitar, and David Sutton on bass. The band then closed the night on “Joy,” a stunner of a rocker during which the band slipped into Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”
Lucinda might have ended the night singing, “You took my joy / I want it back,” but by all accounts, she gave that joy away in spades.
Here are some more photos of Lucinda Williams at The Anthem on Feb. 8, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.