As I write this, I am not even halfway through this record and we are not even halfway through 2016. Still, Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20 already rates as one of the best Roots Moderne records of the year.
When I interviewed Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz about Guitar in the Space Age for Premier Guitar in 2014, they had just finished recording with Williams for Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. They appear together on a couple of tracks on that record, but Frisell told me at that time there was an amazing record in the can, made up entirely of the two guitarists interacting live with Williams and her rhythm section. The Ghosts of Highway 20 is that record.
Early Lucinda with a another pair of great guitarists, John “JJ” Jackson (Bob Dylan), and Kenny Vaughn (Marty Stuart) who studied with Bill Frisell as a young man in Colorado.
Leisz has long been a first call steel player/guitarist for songwriters from Amos Lee to Joni Mitchell. Frisell’s sensitivity to songwriters has been proven by his work with everyone from Elvis Costello to Shawn Colvin.
Frisell and Leisz have been playing together for over a decade in Frisell’s band and compliment each other in a way that only experience combined with massive talent can provide. They envelope Williams’ gospel/blues/country inflected jewels in a setting less like modern, arranged, commercial country parts (as terrific as those often are) and more like the original improvisation that was an integral part of early roots music.
Williams has written some great songs on each of her records and some filler, but the songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20, consistently contain the simple power of historic blues, gospel and country; much like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind-period tunes. And, as Frisell intimated in our conversation, Williams holds her own during extended improvisations like the one on “Faith and Grace,” making this a constant three-way conversation. The rhythm section of David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums offers a solid groove from which that trio can take off into flights of creative invention without losing the pop appeal of the music.
Kudos too, to all involved in the production—producers Tom Overby, Greg Leisz, and Lucinda Williams; engineer/mixer David Bianco, and engineer David Spreng—for making the quality of the recorded sound equal to that of the performances.
The Ghosts of Highway 20 should stand as a touchstone of what an Americana record should be: a meeting of deep roots, modern sounds, and massive talent—not just that of the artist, but of all concerned. Fourteen songs, many containing lengthy (for pop music) instrumental sections, make for a running time of almost an hour and a half, yet I was sorry when it was over. Williams & Co. create a musical world where I could happily live for a long, long time.