It's two days after the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, and the veteran singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams is onstage at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, La., enumerating reasons to be cheerful during a talk break.
"This is a wonderful venue. We have nice weather. Obama's dead-"
She claps her hand over mouth as the crowd laughs at her gaffe. She then spends the next five minutes trying to recover and to get her liberal credentials back in order. (She insists she's "proud" it's under Barack Obama's watch that bin Laden has met his demise.) Eventually, though, she returns to her initial theme.
"We've cut the head off al-Qaeda," she declares proudly. And, Obama supporter (and therefore, presumably, Democratic voter) though she is, she seems to mean it.
Williams seems to mean everything she says-and sings. It's this "real" quality that makes the autobiographical nature of her lyrics appealing: Unlike many of her co-laborers in the confessional vineyard, she never seems to use the first-person point of view as an opportunity to flaunt her victimhood or her sensitivity.
But Williams is sensitive-and to the right things. The title track of her new album, Blessed (Lost Highway), lists "the minister who practiced what he preached," "the mystic who turned water into wine," and "the mother who gave up the child" (presumably to adoptive parents) as evidence that acts of kindness have consequences and that they're not random. And "Born to Be Loved," which assures its listeners that they weren't born to be "abandoned," "forsaken," or "abused," extends (probably inadvertently) the pro-life theme.
Produced by Don Was and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, Blessed does the singer-songwriter's connectedness to first things sonic justice. But it's in a live performance that her songs and the winsome vulnerability they embody really come to life. Williams is not above, for instance, propping a book of her lyrics on a music stand next to her stage-center mic or above singing songs with geographic references specific to where she happens to be performing. Neither does she use auto-tune or any other aural special effects to "prettify" her 58-year-old voice. Cracks, woozy enunciation, and all, she stands and delivers.
The secret weapon of her shows these days, however, is Blake Mills, her electric guitarist and newest band member. As if born to the accomplishment, he not only replicates but also enhances both the rough-hewn and the ethereal aspects of Williams' impressive three-decade body of work. Williams is "blessed" to have him. And she performs as if she knows as much.
On Hard Bargain (Nonesuch), Emmylou Harris proves that she's Lucinda Williams' sister-in-arms. Obvious aural differences notwithstanding (the angels Harris sings like aren't honky-tonk ones), she layers her increasingly elaborate country-folk recordings with as much attention to detail and unselfconsciousness, even going so far in the latter department as to title the album after one of the few songs on it that she didn't write.
But if Williams excels at universalizing herself, Harris excels at individualizing the universal. Whether relocating the Great Flood motif in the rains of Hurricane Katrina ("New Orleans"), transforming her memories of the late Gram Parsons into a virtual roadmap for the soul ("The Road"), or putting herself in the shoes of Emmett Till to outdo Bob Dylan at condemning America's Jim Crow-era Deep South ("My Name Is Emmett Till"), she delineates the abstract with an artist's skill.
And, as in Williams' best recent songs, a subliminal identification with the gospel comes through. The title of Harris' closing number, "Cross Yourself," after all, can be taken in more ways than one.