Time Magazine once called her “America’s greatest songwriter” and her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is considered a modern classic ranking 304th on Rolling Stone’s famous 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It’s hard to believe Lucinda Williams is 61 already but like all true artists, age is in no way slowing her down. Notorious for taking her sweet time to make records (there was an impressive 8-year gap between her second and third albums back in the ‘80s), her latest effort Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone picks up the slack since 2011’s Blessed in the form of a double album and wrangles together an impressive list of collaborators. Everyone from Elvis Costello’s rhythm section (Davey Faragaher and Pete Thomas) to jazz legend Bill Frisell and Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers) make stellar guest appearances but at the end of the day, Lucinda’s hard-won lessons of life, love and everything in between yet again completely justify why she often takes so damn long to release albums.
The record opens with the solo acoustic track Compassion. Based on a work by her acclaimed poet father Miller Williams, it’s the song from which the titular lyric is pulled and serves as a stark aperitif for the ensuing two disc tapestry of genuine Americana and self-professed “country soul”. Her Louisiana upbringing has always afforded her a unique fluency in all the diverse musical languages of the American South and these traditions are all proudly displayed against a backdrop of present-day social disillusion on DWTSMTB. The ardent, swampy blues-rock on tracks like Protection, Foolishness and Everything But The Truth show that there’s still some fire in the now sexagenarian Williams’ belly but then you have powerful country-tinged gospel waltzes like Cold Day in Hell and Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing) to remind you of Lucinda’s perennial choice of insight over cynicism in the face of an increasingly jaded world.
For an artist as iconic and influential as Lucinda, she does an impressive job of harnessing the sounds of modern country for her own purpose like on the hooky Stand Right By Each Other, the freewheeling Walk On and Stowaway in Your Heart, all of which feature gorgeous 3-part Nashville harmonies to punctuate their deliberate radio friendliness. At no point though is this at the expense of her old-school, hard country roots with songs like the slinky, overdriven West Memphis, the deep yearning of Wrong Number or the genuine-article Willie Nelson-esque swing of the excellently named This Old Heartache.
Languid pedal steel and bottle-neck slide guitars counterpoint the jagged, immortal husk in Williams’ voice throughout pretty much the entirety of DWTSMSB and over the course of the set’s staggering 110 minute runtime, it’s great to see the relationship between these two elements (largely upon which her legacy has been built since her 1979 debut Ramblin’ On My Mind) is still in breathtaking form to this day. Rounding out the set is an almost-10-minute cover of JJ Cale’s Magnolia which is an absolute dynamic tour-de-force, tying together all the aspects of Williams’ enviably multifaceted wheelhouse while simultaneously showing the reverence for music of the past that’s always been inherent in the world of country.
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is a fairly huge undertaking both for Lucinda and those who listen to it with almost every style south of the Mississippi delta expertly represented in ways that only someone with the experience of Williams could. It finds a culturally resonant balance between heartache and the uncertain socio-political times in which we live but all the while has a sense of infectious joy and adventurousness that few will ever manage to match.