Lucinda Williams on discovering Bob Dylan: 'This is what I want to do'
Lucinda Williams had no trouble pinpointing when and where Bob Dylan’s music came into her life when I called her to talk about her participation in the gargantuan new tribute album “Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.”
She’s one of 80 artists who have recorded new versions of Dylan songs as a benefit for the human rights organization for the album that will be released Tuesday, Jan. 24. It's the subject of a feature in Sunday's Arts & Books section.
“1965,” she said without an instant's hesitation. “I was 12 1/2 years old, it was the year I started playing guitar. We were living in Baton Rouge, and my dad [poet Miller Williams] was teaching at LSU.
“One of his creative writing students came over to the house one day—I’ll never forget it--to meet with my dad. And he brought in a copy of this new record he was excited about. That was a time when somebody’s new album came out it would be like a big deal. Everybody would be talking about it, and they’d bring it over to somebody’s house and everyone would listen to it.
“One of his students brought a copy of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and told my dad, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to listen to this.’ But my dad wasn’t that impressed with Bob Dylan; even though he was a poet, he listened to [jazz saxophonist John] Coltrane and Hank Williams and Lightinin' Hopkins. The contemporary folk-rock scene was more [intersting to] my generation and his students’ generation.
“The advantage was that I was turned on to quite a bit of music from these people who were in their 20s, turning me on to Dylan and the Doors. This guy set the album down and I put it on and listened to it.
"Even though I was only 12 1/2 and I didn’t understand all the lyrics, it didn’t matter. What struck me was the blend of traditional folk music and these lyrics that seemed to come from both of those worlds: my dad’s world of creative writing and the folk music world I had been steeped in through people like Peter, Paul & Mary, Gordon Lightfoot, the traditional folk songs [recorded by] John and Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Joan Baez.
“This was completely different, yet it was still coming from that folk thing," she said. “I thought, ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ He was my hero. I’m not embarrassed to say it. That became the challenge for me, to try to be able to write like that.”
For “Chimes of Freedom,” Williams eventually settled on recording “Tryin’ To Get to Heaven" from Dylan’s 1997 “Time Out of Mind” album.
“I must have spent, God, a couple of weeks just listening to nothing but Bob Dylan. I’m so thorough in everything, so of course I’ve got to go through every single thing, and then listen to bootleg versions of songs as well as the album version to see which lyrics are the best ones, which is what I did in this case.”
The first-come, first-served method used by those overseeing the project, a team led by veteran record industry executive Jeff Ayeroff and Amnesty International’s music relations director Karen Scott, helped limit the playing field a bit for Williams.
“First of all they sent us a list and some of the songs I immediately went to, like ‘Masters of War,’ were already taken. I don’t know how all those other people saw the list before I did,” she said with a laugh.
Among others she considered: “Tears of Rage” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.” “It was a trial-and-error thing,” she said. “I finally narrowed it down to ‘Buckets of Rain’ and this one [‘Tryin’ To Get to Heaven’], which really surprised me, because it didn’t jump right out at first.
“That album, ‘Time Out of Mind,’ I remember loving that when it came out. The production was so new for him. So I figured out a version, and the cool thing was that Tom [Overby, her husband and manager], being the record collection-historian, had all this bootleg stuff. So we sat around the kitchen table with all these stacks of CDs. There was an outtake version with some of the lyrics he left off the album version, and I have no idea why.”
" 'I’m tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door,' ” she said, quoting the song's refrain. "That was the clincher. I just really connected with it.” It's just possible, she added, that she might include it in her Jan. 27 performance at UCLA's Royce Hall. In case she doesn't, here's a clip from a show in New York in November where she sang it:
“Doing these tribute albums can be a challenging thing,” she said. “A song can sound great when you’re listening to it by the original artist. But you’ve got to put something of your own into it. I was just thrilled with the way it came out.”
Photo of Lucinda Williams. Credit: James Minchin III.