There was a time the only significant gripe fans or critics could muster about the music of Lucinda Williams was the seemingly eternal waits between albums.
Following the release of two initial folk-blues leaning records, eight years slipped by before her landmark self-titled album surfaced in 1988 to introduce the world to the rootsy endearment of Crescent City and the obsessive severity of Change the Locks.
It took another four years before we heard Sweet Old World, an album highlighted by the regal but emotively devastating eulogy within its title track. Then, nothing again for six years. But that wait yielded 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a genre-defining work for a new Americana generation.
These days, Williams works at an altogether sharper pace, so much so that she attributes the wealth of music on her new Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone album to what she now views as a lengthy stretch of down time from recording.
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"It's been three years since Blessed (her previous record) and this album," says Williams, who returns to Lexington for a Sunday night performance at the Lexington Opera House. "That's a good amount of time to come up with stuff."
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is the work of an artist who can now boast of being prolific. It's a double-disc set of 20 songs, all but two of which are exclusively original works about love, loss, contentment, vengeance, heaven, hell, the works. But it's not just a double album. It's a magnum opus of a recording with a one-hour, 45-minute running time.
"We broke a few rules on this one, definitely," Williams says. "There's the whole double album thing, which people think is a little risky because you don't know how it's going to go over. A lot of the reason people kind of get nervous about double albums is there will be a handful of good songs on them, and the rest of it might be filler. But every so often, you do have these great double albums that have worked, like Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East.
"So that was the first rule we broke, the double album. Another was putting Compassion first, a solo acoustic song. Usually you put something like that at the end. I believe it was Greg Leisz (the pedal-steel guitar stylist who co-produced Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone with Williams and husband Tom Overby) that suggested putting it first. Initially, I wasn't sure about that. But it proved to be the right move because the song really grabs you."
Compassion is different from any other song Williams has cut because she uses a poem penned by her father, Miller Williams, as lyrics. The album title is also derived from the poem.
"What was difficult about it was just taking a poem and making it into a song," she says. "That in and of itself was hard, but it's something I've wanted to do for a really long time. So I worked on it for a couple of days after all the other songs were done and managed to come up with something, and we cut it with just me on guitar. Initially, I was going to add some other stuff to it and make it into a Nick Drake kind of thing, you know, cello and all that to flesh it out. But I went in and demoed it with just my guitar. Greg and Tom both said, 'Let's just leave it like it is.' So we did."
On the other end of the record sits its only cover tune, a lovely reading of Magnolia, a 1972 song by the great Okie songsmith and guitarist J.J. Cale, who died last year. Williams' version lingers for nearly 10 gorgeous minutes with an arrangement that culminates with a positively enchanted instrumental exchange between Leisz and guitar titan Bill Frisell.
"The other rule we broke was the length of some of the songs," Williams says. "I mean, I love great guitar playing on some of my favorite albums, like the early Allman Brothers stuff and all those extended jams. Like at the end of Magnolia, the way it just keeps going. That was another thing. There was a lot of spontaneity that went into this album. I think people can tell that.
"We found ourselves in Tulsa just after J.J. Cale passed away. He's from there, so we ended up doing that song during the encore. I used to perform Magnolia back in the '70s and always loved it. It sounded so good that when we went to record this album, Tom said, 'Let's do that as a tribute to J.J. Cale.' It's just a great song."