Lucinda Williams is on the road again. This fact may not be headline-grabbing given that musicians all around the world are back touring after a two-year, pandemic-enforced lockdown!
However, the past 24-months have been somewhat more tumultuous for Lucinda than most artists.
The COVID shutdown of her 2020 tour was just the beginning of her woes. Around the same time, a tornado swept through Tennessee and took roofing off her home in East Nashville. The coronavirus then took the lives of two close music friends – producer Hal Willner and Americana legend John Prine. And then, to cap it all off, in November 2020 she suffered a serious stroke and was rushed to Nashville’s Vanderbilt Medical Centre, where she spent a week in the intensive care unit.
Williams was confined to a rehabilitation centre for five weeks and then worked with therapists for around six months to overcome lingering pain in her left arm and leg. She graduated from a wheelchair to walking with a cane, but had trouble playing a guitar, though doctors saw no sign of brain damage and the prognosis was for a 100 per cent recovery.
“The main thing is I can still sing,” Williams told Rolling Stone during her recovery."I’m singing my ass off, so that hasn’t been affected. Can’t keep me down for too long.”
And sing she still can. For her voice was at its ballsy and soulful best when she did a live-streamed concert at the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington, Indiana, on April 14. It came a week after she resumed touring – after a false start to 2022 due to the COVID omicron variant - with gigs scheduled through to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on January 4 , three weeks before she turns 70.
But there is no hiding her physical frailty. She shuffled onstage slowly and spent the first half of the two-hour show sitting. When she finally stood for the second hour, she took the opportunity to confront her physical challenges.
“As you can see, I’m in rehab,” she told the audience to a drum roll as she got off her stool. “No, not that kind of rehab,” she joked. “I hope I don’t look too feeble.”
She took the opportunity to praise the support she had received at the rehabilitation clinic at Vanderbilt and all those who “have taken care of me” over the past 18 months. “It’s a long road to recovery, full of lessons.”
She also addressed the fact – quite obvious to those who have seen her live over the years – that she no longer stomps around the stage, guitar in hand. “Not playing guitar – just ain’t happening. It will!” she said.
Her guitar was hardly missed, with her trusty backing band Buick 6 - Stuart Mathis (guitar/backing vocals), Dave Sutton (bass), Butch Norton (drums/percussion) and newcomer Jim Obion (guitar/keyboards/backing vocals).
Mathis, Sutton and Norton featured on her last album, the Grammy-nominated Good Souls Better Angels, though the Bloomington gig was hardly a promotion for the 2020 release with just three tracks from Good Souls – “Big Black Train,” “You Can’t Rule Me,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell – in the nicely-balanced 19-song setlist.
The centre-piece turned out to be a quartet of songs which superbly reflected the “beautiful messes and misfits” she has written about for 40 years. There was the mess, “Pineola”, a traumatic tale of a promising poet. There were the misfits, “Drunken Angel” & “Lake Charles”, songs about two long-gone, wayward friends. And even a mistrial, “West Memphis”, the despairing song she composed in first-person after watching a documentary about the injustice relating to three teenagers charged with murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in the early 1990’s. Someone planted the evidence/ And he’s been lying ever since/ But that’s the way we do things in West Memphis
Despite her medical issues, Williams spent much of her recuperation writing new material and, true to her word, she performed the bluesy “Stolen Moments.” Once again she reflects on life lost - this time as part of a Tom Petty tribute to mark what would have been his 70th birthday.
But perhaps the most pertinent moment in the Bloomington gig came with the first of two encore songs – the aptly titled Chuck Willis standard “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up my Rock ‘n Roll Shoes.” For Americana music will not be the same should Lucinda ever do so!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation