Lucinda Williams on Her Father's Death: "He Taught Me to be Empathetic"

Though living in Hollywood, Lucinda Williams keeps her music rooted in the Delta. (Photo: Michael Wilson)

As a songwriter, Lucinda Williams needs no introduction. In brilliant, award-winning albums like Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and World Without Tears, her way with words has helped bring salve after musical salve to sadness inherent in the modern world, be it from suicide ("Pineola," "Sweet Old World"), addiction ("Drunken Angel," "Real Life Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings") or heartbreak (too many songs to name).

It's not an act -- loss has been a constant in Williams' personal life. Two early boyfriends died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds and liver damage, respectively. Her mother, hindered by alcoholism and mental illness, failed to receive custody of her children after a divorce; she died in 2004.

But the largest hole in Williams' life is the absence of her father, the celebrated poet Miller Williams, who died last month at age 84. To say the two were close is a huge understatement -- as she'd written to him, once he'd been stricken with Alzheimer's, in the liner notes of her latest album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, "As Flannery O'Connor was to you, you were my greatest teacher. Thank you."

After his death, Williams postponed some shows. She went on a cruise. And then, last week, before two shows at the Fillmore this Tuesday and Wednesday, she picked up the phone and talked with KQED for the first time since her father's passing about Miller Williams -- the man who had influenced her, and her music, more than anyone.

 
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All of your fans, myself included, were sad to hear about your father, who I know was a huge presence in your life.

Well, we've been out doing shows and everything. I've been staying busy, and that always helps.

You finally put one of his poems to music, with the song “Compassion.” During these recent shows, does "Compassion" take on a different meaning for you now?

It's just a lot more intense now when I sing it. I wasn't sure just how easy or hard it was going to be to get on stage and do that song. Actually, I'm still pretty grounded. I think it's because he died of Alzheimer's, and really, there was a part of him that had already died. You know? That's the sad thing about Alzheimer's. It just drags on and on. I think I grieved maybe more so when he told me that he couldn't write poetry any more. I remember that just knocked the wind out of my sails because that was just so much... I mean, that's who he was.

And such a large part of your relationship was based on words. I remember that for each album, you used to submit your lyrics for him to for review.

Yeah, I did.

What was the most valuable lesson as a lyricist that you learned from him in that process?

Well, a couple of things. He always said, "Never censor yourself as a writer." And he taught me about the economics of writing. I learned how to edit. He was a great editor, besides being a great poet. Those are probably the main things.

It's been well-chronicled that you've endured a lot of tragedy. And while that can oftentimes turn people bitter or angry, instead, your songs exude a sense of empathy and understanding. How does that happen?

He taught me that. To be empathetic. I can't be bitter, I never have. I'm just not that kind of person. I'm not a cynical, jaded person. And he wasn't either, you know? He always found... He stayed inquisitive and was able to still be in awe of things. I think you have to be. I think it makes a person a better artist, really.

One of your dad's poems opens with the line: "Somewhere in everyone's head, something points toward home." This last record you made, there's so much of the south on it. Is home for you still in the south, or is it in Hollywood now?

It's still in the south. We live in Los Angeles and it's a great place. I love L.A., but my memories always take me back to the south. Most of my family is still in the south, or parts of the south. The south will always live in me, no matter where I am. It almost doesn't matter where I am, because I travel so much anyway. But I still feel a real deep connection with the south.

There's also a lot of good-versus-evil on this record, in songs like "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "Everything But The Truth,” these sort of holy-roller songs. God shows up in your songs -- what role, if any, does God play in your life?

For me, it's more about a higher power. God shows up in all different kinds of ways. It's just more about love. I don't consider myself a Christian or a religious person. Probably a lot of people would echo these sentiments, but it's just more some kind of energy force, or field, or something that I know is there. I'm not sure what it is, but I know it's something and it's there, because I've felt it before. We're not just living in this empty void. Call it love, call it energy, call it a connection... The power. Spiritual power.

And I just feel like it's so much more complex than that for me. My father's father was a Methodist minister, and he was a Christian in the true sense of the word. He believed in women's rights and equal rights for everyone. He was a conscientious objector of World War I. He and my grandmother both wore black armbands during the Vietnam moratorium. So he was a real good role model for me as far as all of that goes. I was influenced and inspired, to some degree, by the more traditional ways of Christianity. My mother's father was also a Methodist minister, but he was more hellfire and brimstone. I was able to see both ends of it. I've always enjoyed reading about religion, and studying comparative religions. I just find it really fascinating.

I remember my dad was... We'd get into discussions about quantum physics, because he was a writer, and he was this preacher's son, and he also taught biochemistry. That's what his degree was in. He had that very scientific, kind of practical way of thinking, while at the same time being very creative and enjoying exploring the human condition.

Do you think he ever asked why a God, that his father believed in, would allow such tragedy to happen in the world?

Oh, certainly. My dad has a poem called "Why Does God Permit Evil?" For years, I've been wanting to put that poem into a song, but it's kind of a long poem. That's why he pulled away from the church and everything, because of those kinds of questions which no one knows the answers to. If you see God as this kind of all-powerful deity, where if you pray hard enough, you'll get something that you want? That always has bothered me, because you hear people say that all the time: "God's answered my prayers." Well, what about the people who didn't get their prayers answered?

It reminds me of that song by Tom Waits, "Georgia Lee,” about a young girl killed and left on the side of the road. The chorus of which is, "Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?"

Yeah, I've talked to Christians about this, too, and that's always the main question. "Why does God permit evil?" I remember someone said to me once, "Man has free will, and this is all man's doing." I guess God is just kind of hanging out, watching us all fuck up or something. I don't know.

I always look to Bob Dylan, who's dealt with the subject so many times in his music. Even before he became a Christian or whatever, in his early music: "God said to Abraham 'Kill me a son' / Abe said 'Man, you must be putting me on.'" Leonard Cohen, also. Go back and look at his lyrics, and he deals with a lot of that subject matter in his songs.

I've heard that your dad had a great sense of humor. Would you agree with that?

Yes. And a very dry sense of humor, even up until the end. We'd talk on the phone and he'd forget he said something, and he'd say, "Well, you know, sometimes my brain's not working the way it used to." Or something like that.

Have you started writing any songs about your dad?

I actually have started one. And I have a couple things that I'd started before, about his Alzheimer's, and when he told me he couldn't remember anymore. But I have to work on them some more.

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Lucinda Williams plays Tuesday and Wednesday, Mar. 3 & 4, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. For details and more information, see here.

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