“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
– Pat Conroy, The Prince Of Tides
Lucinda Williams is haunted by the South. So many of her great songs, it seems, wrestle with the ghosts of her Southern heritage. Past lovers and past lives are forever tied to place, and in her case it’s often the old Civil War towns of Mississippi and Louisiana.
On “Jackson,” the final song off of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, her beloved 1998 album, the narrator anticipates passing through several towns on an unspecified road-trip, and wonders what feelings those places will trigger about a certain loved one. “All the way to Jackson/ I don’t think I’ll miss you much/ All the way to Jackson/ I don’t think I’ll miss you much.”
The song unfolds over a few chords of finger-picked acoustic guitar, accompanied by a voice that Emmylou Harris once testified could “melt the chrome off a trailer hitch.” If the narrator is not missing this person, she doesn’t sound like it. The emotional history of their relationship is wedded to these towns (Jackson, Lafayette, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge), and it will forever be so.
Williams’ new album, The Ghosts Of Highway 20, returns to much of the same swampy terrain she traversed on Car Wheels, and the albums feel like bookends in a way, though the latter offers little in the way of resolution (the death of her mother and father – and all the questions those events raise – are explored in two different songs). In our cover story, the daughter of the poet Miller Williams talks at length about her upbringing, a rough-and-tumble ordeal not without its transcendent moments, including a trip to the homestead of Flannery O’Conner (her dad’s idol), and a chance meeting at age six with bluesman Blind Pearly Brown, a big-bang moment that offered young Lucinda a privileged glimpse into a mysterious and hypnotic otherworld. Even in her childhood, it seems the literary and low-down were never far apart.
Of course, family and place are not exclusive to Southerners as sources of artistic inspiration. The poignant new album from Boston native Aoife O’Donovan, In The Magic Hour, was inspired by the recent death of her grandfather, an Irishman, and the childhood summers she spent with him along the Emerald Isle. The record is in part an elegy for lost youth, and features a rendition of “Donal Og” (originally an eighth-century Irish poem and a favorite of Ted Hughes no less), a tune O’Donovan’s musician parents sang to her as a child. The song’s outro even includes a clip of her grandfather singing the words to the Irish traditional “The West’s Awake.” It’s a stirring moment indeed.
2016 has already seen the exit of a number of artists that helped shape the DNA of pop music over the last half-century. Patterson Hood, one of the principal singers and songwriters of Drive-By Truckers, the celebrated Southern rock band, pays tribute to one of the departed, David Bowie, in the back pages of this issue. Hood argues that Bowie’s prowess as a songwriter is often overlooked, simply because of his superlatives in so many other areas.
Finally, we jet down to the Florida panhandle for the 30A Songwriters Festival. Now in its seventh year, the three-day event has established itself as one of the pre-eminent songwriting festivals in the country. This year’s spectacle boasted marquee acts like Jackson Browne, Grace Potter and Shovels & Rope, but it was in in the boutique restaurants and beachside bars that dot this scenic stretch of the Gulf Coast where the real action took place. Artists like Charlie Mars, Robert Ellis and Elise Davis held us rapt with just their voice and guitar. The weekend also offered young-gun artists the chance to rub shoulders with their heroes in the bars and cafes, and in impromptu guitar pulls that went down after-hours in fabulously chic hotels. It was a great event, all around, and one songwriters and music lovers should not miss next year.