Lucinda Williams has been in a rich vein of form of late. Each of her last two albums, Blessed and Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone I was convinced was her best work to date. Now we have The Ghosts of Highway 20, which Paste Magazine said, “hits the gut, the soul and the grey matter.”
At 63, her song writing is penetrating, visceral. It acknowledges pain and suffering, love lost, bereavement, hard times and memory stolen, but rails at it and fights and crawls its way through it to a place, not just of survival, but of redemption. As she sings in Place In My Heart, “I’m pretty strong when I admit it. You might be surprised at what I can manage, so don’t you ever forget.”
In The Ghosts of Highway 20 we have Williams’s second double album in two years, fourteen songs of mature, life-tarnished reflection, delivered flawlessly by her band along with the atmospheric guitar work of Bill Frizell and Val McCallum, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. And, of course, Williams’ own characteristically world-weary, aching voice, as ever beautifully phrased, raging, urgent or cracking, as the song requires.
The final two songs of the album are Americana hymns, which bring it to an appropriate cathartic close, after the previous searching twelve songs. If There’s A Heaven has strong echoes of Hank Williams and touchingly laments the recent passing of Williams’ father, Miller Williams. Apparently Miller used to talk of the time that he met Hank Williams just before his daughter was born, and then as it happens, Miller died on January 1, the same day of the year as Hank had. So, as Lucinda Williams’ husband Tom Overby said, “it’s very fitting that this song would arrive – as if it was a gift from Hank himself.”
The song is unashamedly about death – something that has become a taboo subject in our culture. “When you’re done, and your run is finally through…when you cross over to the other side…[when] you are cold and cannot stand…when you leave me here to grieve in pain and despair” – are stark lyrics for sure. Anyone of us who has lost people we love know the starkness and the pain of this parting, of being “bereft,” literally deprived of the other person.
“I’ve seen the face of hell,” says Williams, speaking of past heartache and troubles, and wants to know “if there’s a heaven out there.”
The final song of the album, Faith and Grace, brings something of an answer to the question.
“Just a little more faith and grace, To help me run this race, That’s all, that’s all, all I need.”
The song broadens life’s pain beyond bereavement to include burdens that are “hard to bear,” and times when “every door is locked,” and “no one will help me.” How do we cope at such times? How do we bear it? Williams answers, “I know I can make the call, I know God will hear.”
But we can’t see the heaven that’s out there beyond death, we can’t see the other side of our troubles at times, and for sure we can’t see God. That’s why we need “a little more faith and grace,” to find the assurance that “He will always hear you knock,” and to know that “You will always be standing right, When you’re standing on the rock.”
Williams here echoes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. “Ask,” says Jesus, “and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” If we can find the faith to believe that, then we become like the people at the end of the Sermon, of whom Jesus said “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built their house on rock.”
But, Williams has it right – when the time of trouble comes, we need a little more faith and grace, so we can stand on a rock, rather than be blown away by it all. And Williams’ final refrain as the song plays out is telling: “Get right with God,” she intones over and over, echoing a song from her album Essence. Right there is the point where faith begins and where we begin to find the grace we need.