Essential New Music: Lucinda Williams’ “The Ghosts Of Highway 20”

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Lucinda Williams is on a roll: 2014’s double album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone was a late-career highlight, and most of The Ghosts Of Highway 20 (also a double) arose from the same sessions. These aren’t leftovers: Ghosts may be even better than Spirit. Coming from an artist who struggled to release records early in her career (1998’s classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, for instance, was fraught with delays and second-guessing), this prolific burst is remarkable. And welcome.

The Ghosts Of Highway 20 features master guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, and while this is definitely a song-oriented set, they often lend it a dreamy, abstract quality that lets the music stretch and bend. Frisell uses his liquid tones and stately melodic sense to give love song “Place In My Heart” and country ballad “If There’s A Heaven” a spacious, ethereal atmosphere. But the nearly 90-minute set has room for plucky, finger-picking toe-tappers (“Bitter Memory”), gospel blues (“Doors Of Heaven”), gothic meditations (“I Know All About It”), a Springsteen cover (“Factory”) and two epic journeys (the nine-minute “Louisiana” and the nearly 13-minute “Faith And Grace”).

Actually, all of Ghosts is a journey: The 63-year-old Williams frames the album as a travelogue of people and places along Highway 20, which stretches from South Carolina to Texas. One of Williams’ numerous strengths as a songwriter is her sense of place—she uses concrete details and locales to reach personal and universal truths. Williams’ themes here aren’t new for her—love lost and found, mortality, the struggle to get right with God. But thanks to Frisell especially, the settings for Williams’ cracked, world-weary voice and vivid songwriting are indeed new.

—Steve Klinge