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Aug 8, 2017 11:48 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Lucinda Williams To Share Songs And Stories Tuesday Night In Westhampton Beach

Lucinda Williams DAVID MCCLISTER
Aug 8, 2017 12:00 PM

For “Ghosts of Highway 20,” Lucinda Williams takes the stage alone. And before she picks up her guitar to sing, she tells the audience a story.

It starts when she was a young girl, riding in the backseat of her father’s car at age 4 or 5, watching the world pass her by. She saw cotton fields for miles, rusty junkyards and broken-down shacks. Doomsday signs dotted the two-lane, blacktop highway. “The end is near” and “Repent now,” they said—and they scared her.

Her parents had divorced in the mid-1960s. Her mother, Lucille, was an amateur pianist and her father, Miller, a poet and literature professor. He gained sole custody of his three children and, as he had since they were young, moved them from college town to college town, until finally earning tenure at the University of Arkansas.

But it was in New Orleans where Ms. Williams says she came into her own—“kind of like that Neil Young song where he says, ‘All of my changes were there,’” the musician said during a recent telephone interview from her tour bus, parked in Kansas City, before making her way toward New York for a concert on Tuesday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.

“I lucked out,” she said. “I got both of my parents’ genes. My dad said he remembers me standing in my playpen as a toddler singing, and I started taking guitar lessons in 1965 and writing songs when I was a teenager. I went to college for a little bit, but then I moved to Texas and met other songwriters, and there was a community there. I didn’t have a manager back then—I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was just playing wherever I could and making ends meet.”

Ms. Williams, once described as too rock for country and too country for rock, broke into the mainstream with “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” which landed her the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The title track puts her in the backseat of that car she often describes to her audiences, driving down Highway 20—the literal and figurative backdrop of her life, she said, as well as a road map.

One of the stops on it is Macon, Georgia, where she lived briefly as a young girl, and played a concert a few years ago. When she got off the bus, she realized so little had changed, from the Cox Theater, home of the Allman Brothers, to downtown Macon itself, where she would watch Blind Pearly Brown perform on the street corner while holding her father’s hand.

But Blind Pearly Brown wasn’t there. And neither was her father.

“I still get really sad. It comes in waves, you know?” Ms. Williams said. “My mother passed away in 2004, and then my dad almost exactly 10 years later. You never get over that. It just stays with you. It’s one of those things. But I’m really blessed that I’m able to process 
these feelings and emotions through my songs, through my music.

“It’s so healing,” she continued. “Sometimes when I’m out on stage and the audience is out there, sometimes I’m in a weird mood, or feeling sad, or kind of out of sorts, and then, two or three songs into the evening, I feel lifted up. It’s very healing. And I’ll tell the audience now, thank them for their gift. Having them there is a gift to me.”

Ms. Williams got back on the bus that night, and back on Highway 20. Many of the cotton fields and junkyards from her childhood were long gone, but the exit signs weren’t.

“I started seeing the names of all the towns I lived in. It was like a ribbon connecting all of them,” she said. “My husband and manager—and co-conspirator—he started talking to me about trying to write a song connecting all this stuff. At first, I said, ‘I think I’ve already said everything needed to be said in “Car Wheels,”’ but he said, ‘This is from a different perspective. Why don’t you see if you can take a shot at it?’”

When they returned home, she got to work.

“I have a room where I can spread everything out and just leave it there,” she said. “As soon as I get up the next day, I like to go in there when I first get up, and my mind’s not thinking about other stuff, and go in there and take up where I left off. I go in spurts like that. I get into these writing modes where I just go and go, and do that for about 10 days, or two weeks, and see what I come up with.”

“Ghosts of Highway 20” picks up where “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” leaves off, she explained. Instead of sitting in the backseat, she’s driving the car, she said, and looking back.

This is what she tells her audience, and only then does she pick up her guitar and start to sing.

“I went through hell when I was younger/Deep in the well you’ll see the hunger/To find the strength I got within me/To wrestle with the ghost of Highway 20.”

Lucinda Williams will play a concert on Tuesday, August 15, at 8 p.m. the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $85 to $135. For more information, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.

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