The lesser-known cousin to the far more famous Route 66, Interstate 20 spans the southern portion of the U.S., cutting a 1,500 mile swath from Texas to South Carolina. Like the more famous highway to the north, it inspires tales of towns and travelers who have been intersected due to its routing, bringing to bear distinctive portraits of life in America’s most rural environs.
That’s the backdrop for Lucinda Williams’ latest opus, The Ghosts of Highway 20, is a stirring series of 14 songs spread across two CDs, one which captures the troubled perspectives that accompany hard times and tattered circumstance. Williams herself is no stranger to this malaise; hers is a persona that often appears weathered and beaten, like a woman tossed on the waves of misfortune and forced by necessity to fend for herself. It’s little surprise then that The Ghosts of Highway 20 feels as haunted as it is harrowing, all hushed yet rugged songs of contemplation, sung with a weariness that reflects one who finds herself marginalized like she’s little more than damaged goods.
There’s a palpable ache residing in several of these songs — “Louisiana,” “I Know All About It,” “Death Came” and “Can’t Close My Door on Love,” in particular — a melancholia born from both desire and despair. “Get right with God, get right with God,” she wails on the album’s powerful final track “Faith and Grace,” a song of redemption that finds those qualities residing just out of reach. Indeed, Williams’ morose approach seems desperate by design. Other than the brief uptick brought on by the soulful sway of “Doors of Heaven” and the mildly rollicking, sultry swing of “Bitter Memory,” these songs move at a deliberate pace — dark, dry, quiet and contemplative. It’s a Sunday morning record at its essence, one to put on the player when the demons that occupied the night before still loom large and resist all attempts to shake them.
Williams has never been afraid to confront those demons before, but feels more personal than in the past, music that’s borne precisely from both heart and soul. It’s hardly an easy listen, but it’s a compelling one just the same. And if it’s not exactly a conclusive journey, it’s still one worth traveling all the same.