Hank Williams traveled down the “Lost Highway.” Bobby Troup got his kicks on “Route 66.” Bob Dylan rocked on “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Now Lucinda Williams is taking an entrancing journey with “The Ghosts of Highway 20.” It’s an outstanding new double album, with moody reflections on death, life and family in the Deep South, where she grew up.
The Americana queen couldn’t resist the highway title.
“It’s so much a part of American culture,” she said recently on tour in Toronto. “The romance of the highway, train songs, Woody Guthrie and his songs about traveling, and [Jack] Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’ ”
Hwy. 20, which runs from South Carolina to Texas, is personal to Williams. She was reminded of that recently when she and her band were performing in Macon, Ga.
“I was amazed to see how little it had changed in the downtown. It made me reconnect to when I lived there as a kid in the early ’60s,” she recalled. “As we were leaving after the show, I was seeing all these exit signs for towns like Vicksburg, Miss., where my brother was born, and Jackson, where my sister was born.
“Macon was when I started school,” she continued. “Hwy. 20 runs through Monroe, La., where Mother grew up and she’s now buried. From the time I was born in 1953 till we settled in Arkansas in ’71 when my dad achieved tenure at the University of Arkansas, we moved around all over the South. It’s that Hwy. 20 thread.”
Williams will be showcasing some of the “Highway 20” tunes this week during a four-concert stint at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. But the three-time Grammy winner promises a different set list each show that will include a mix of selections from her 12 albums.
“Dust,” the opening track on the new album and a frequent inclusion in her live sets, takes the words of one of her father’s poems.
“Ghosts of Highway 20” was an idea suggested by Tom Overby, her husband/manager/producer, who grew up in Austin, Minn.
“I sort of wrote that as ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ Part 2,” she said, referring back to the title track of her 1998 breakthrough album. “In ‘Car Wheels,’ I was the child in the back seat. In ‘Ghosts of Highway 20,’ I’m driving the car, looking back at the child in the back seat.”
The new album also features a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory.” Williams said it’s a tribute to Overby’s dad, Calvin, who worked for 31 years at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin and died in late 2014.
Many of her new songs are relatively long — ranging from five to 13 minutes.
Working in a modestly priced independent studio in North Hollywood for her own record label, Williams wasn’t constantly watching the clock. Instead, she was able to pursue things she likes: guitars and stream-of-consciousness lyrics in the spirit of such personal favorites as Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” the Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and the Doors’ “This Is the End.”
“Faith and Grace,” the closing track, is one of those long, organic jams — “a mantra-like groove,” she said — during which Williams keeps testifying vocally like she’s in church.
“The only reason it’s a double album is because of that particular track,” Williams pointed out about the nearly 13-minute piece. “The original one is 19 minutes long. We have a remix of that full version, which we’re hoping to release on Record Store Day on vinyl.”
Long time coming
Many of the “Highway 20” songs were recorded when Williams cut her 2014 album “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” another double album (with 20 selections) that was named album of the year by the Americana Music Association last year. But she held these tunes back.
“They had a certain vibe about them,” she explained of the 14 tracks. “They all feature [guitarist] Bill Frisell. He has such a distinctive sound.”
It’s the interplay between Frisell’s atmospheric guitar and the pedal steel sounds of Greg Leisz that defines the vibe of “The Ghosts of Highway 20.”
The roots of one song date to 1980. But several of them, including “Death Came,” were created when Williams began a writing jag after her mother’s death in 2005.
“The newest ones I wrote after my dad passed away a year ago Jan. 1,” she pointed out.
For example, “If My Love Could Kill” is about Miller Williams, a poet and professor of literature, suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Does the singer-songwriter believe in ghosts?
“It’s not ghosts technically,” she clarified. “It’s the memories that drift through your mind and the stories in you, the places you remember and the people you remember.”
And the road they traveled on.