SALT LAKE CITY — Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams was 25 when her father told her something that made her go numb: Frank Stanford had taken his own life. The 29-year-old promising poet in Fayetteville, Arkansas, their family friend — her friend — was dead.
“I could not speak a single word/No tears streamed down my face/I just sat there on the living room couch/Starin' off into space.”
Those haunting words come at the beginning of “Pineola” — a song that with some creative liberties accounts the 1978 death of Stanford, a man “who had everything going for him,” Williams told the Deseret News.
“I went to the funeral with my dad and some of the other writers who were Frank’s mentors,” she said. “It was a pretty intense experience for a 20-something-year-old girl. I’d never been around that before, that kind of thing. That somebody I knew like that did that. It’s just shocking. … I get asked about him and that song a lot.”
In 2011, Time magazine included “Pineola” — a song released in 1992 — on its 100 greatest songs of all time list, suggesting Williams is at her best when she draws from a well of heavy material for her music. In fact, throughout the Lake Charles, Louisiana, singer’s 40-year career of Southern storytelling, many of her songs have tackled the tougher subjects of death and loss. And Williams, who on June 26 comes to Salt Lake’s Red Butte Garden, never tires of singing tragedies.
“It helps me. It’s cathartic in a way,” she said with her distinctive drawl. “That’s why I write those songs, to help process things for myself.”
But this time around, Williams is coming to Utah to celebrate — at least a little. Dubbed the “Car Wheels” show, the first half of the folk/country/rock singer’s concert at Red Butte will focus on her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” record that 20 years ago won a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album. Williams had already been in the music industry for two decades when “Car Wheels” came out, but it was that album, in all of its gritty glory, that marked Williams’ commercial breakthrough.
‘Car wheels on a gravel road’
“Cotton fields stretching miles and miles/ Hank's voice on the radio/ Telephone poles, trees and wires fly on by/Car wheels on a gravel road,” William sings on her Grammy-winning album.
That lyric reflects the nonstop travel Williams experienced during her youth as the daughter of the late Miller Williams, a poet and visiting college professor. Growing up, her family lived in Mexico, New Orleans — where a high-school-aged Williams got suspended for taking part in a Vietnam War protest — and countless towns, big and little, across the Deep South before eventually settling in Arkansas. During a stint in Macon, Georgia, Williams’ family lived about 40 minutes away from Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville. Her father would often visit with the Southern Gothic writer, and during those writing workshops, Williams found entertainment outside the farm, running around chasing O’Connor’s peacocks.
Williams was 11 when O’Connor died of lupus. She was 16 when she discovered O’Connor’s writing.
“I devoured all of her work. I read everything I could get my hands on. I realize more and more how much of an influence Flannery O’Connor’s work has been in my life,” she said. “My childhood was sort of like a built-in creative writing course in a way. I don’t know if I would be the writer I am without having had that kind of direction.”
Most of Williams’ childhood was spent in the Deep South. But long before chasing the peacocks on O’Connor’s farm, Williams actually called Mount Pleasant, Utah, home for a brief time. She was only 2 or 3 years old when she lived in Sanpete County, where her father taught at a boarding school called Wasatch Academy for a year. A few old photographs — including a picture of her family’s car buried deep in snow — help keep that Utah part of her childhood alive.
“My dad was just going from school to school and job to job when I was growing up, and my mother used to talk to me about it and she would say, ‘Honey, when you tell everybody all the places you’ve lived, don’t forget about Utah,’” Williams recalled. “Because I would never mention it when I would talk about all the Southern states I lived in.”
But the 66-year-old singer hasn’t forgotten Utah when it comes to touring. Her performances at Red Butte Garden go back to 2001, and her last appearance in Utah — a sold-out concert at the State Room in 2017 — went over so well the venue added on an extra show. And her “Car Wheels” anniversary tour, which began as just a few performances on the East Coast, has since expanded and branched out West, including its Salt Lake City stop.
To prepare for the shows, Williams recently revisited the “Car Wheels” record for the first time in a long while. She sat in her Nashville home and listened to it all the way through. At one point during her reminiscing, her husband walked in, and Williams, being her own worst critic, turned to him and said succinctly: “We need to remaster ‘Car Wheels.’”
“I don’t really sit around and listen to my albums after I make them,” Williams said with a laugh. ”It was kind of weird listening to it ‘cause it’s been 20 years. You hope that you improve over that time, but you sort of just have to accept it for what it was at that time. It was made so long ago, and I’m more seasoned now. In my mind, the songs all sound better now.”
If you go …
What: Lucinda Williams
When: June 26, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way
How much: $35-$42