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On latest release, 'Blessed', Lucinda Williams moves past bumps in the road

Brian T. Atkinson

Lucinda Williams abruptly halts her thought. She breathes deeply. Sighs with satisfaction. Now, the Louisiana native sets free her joy.

"I feel very blessed at this time in my life," Williams says with an easy laugh, effectively stretching a smile across state lines from the Los Angeles home she shares with husband and manager, Tom Overby. "You want to feel that way by the time you get to be (my age). I just turned 58, and my perspective is certainly different than when I was 48 or 38. I think (my) songs reflect where I am at any given time. This album is more reflective, more mature."

Not to mention absolutely seamless. Williams' "Blessed" (out today), one of her finest moments since 1998's Grammy-winning "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," streams with unparalleled elegance for an hour straight.

Its key: personal evolution. Williams has fueled countless high-water marks with romantic scorn ("Changed the Locks," "Those Three Days"), but contentment clearly has deepened her wellspring. (She and Overby have been married nearly two years.) She tackles and transcends mortality ("Seeing Black," "Copenhagen"). Grants herself heart ("The Awakening") and hope ("Kiss Like Your Kiss"). She expresses gratitude ("Sweet Love"). In fact, Williams weaves that handsome reward throughout.

Consider the title track. "We were blessed by the minister who practiced what he preached," she sings, as a lilting guitar warms the song's already rich tone. "We were blessed by the poor man who said that heaven is within reach. We were blessed by the girl selling roses who showed us how to live. We were blessed by the neglected child who knew how to forgive." The song's universal message found her close to home.

"This little girl selling roses would come into a Mexican restaurant that we go to a lot," Williams explains with a seemingly earnest sense of wonderment. "As long as we had some cash on us, we'd buy some. I was fascinated with this idea: What's this person's life like? I think we can gain something from different people in different ways that we might not realize. It's kind of philosophical."

Elsewhere, Williams allows groove ("Convince Me") and growl ("Buttercup") and seeks resolution both in shadows ("Ugly Truth") and shade ("To Be Loved"). At all times, crisp imagery ("Don't Know How You're Living") and sharp narrative storytelling ("Soldier's Song") fortify the critical and peer praise she's earned steadily since 1988's equally buoyant self-titled collection. (Remember, Time magazine did name Williams our best songwriter a decade ago.)

"I treasure Lucinda as a songwriter and a performer," iconic rocker Melissa Etheridge says. "She has a handle on the pulse of where rock and roll comes from. She's on the edge and wild and wicked, a purist who hasn't once sold out for anything." "I love the way she writes," echoes soulful singer-songwriter Amos Lee, who enlisted Williams for the duet "Clear Blue Eyes" on his recent chart-topping "Mission Bell." "I've probably listened to her song 'Little Angel, Little Brother' a thousand times. (As a songwriter), that's the kind of song that colors the edges of what you do."

Williams supplies inspiration at relative light speed these days. Notably, she's produced five studio albums since the millennium's turn, as many as she cut in the previous two decades.

"I've been pretty prolific as of late," the notorious perfectionist says. "Something just clicked on. I'm always coming up with ideas and jotting lines down. I save everything and put it in a folder. Some people are real disciplined and get up every day and try to finish a song a day or a song a week. I don't put that kind of pressure on myself. At some point, they're all going to be there."

Take note: They'll be in Austin later this month when Williams brings the new collection to the Lost Highway Records 10th anniversary showcase at South by Southwest (March 18 at ACL Live at the Moody Theater). "I love South by Southwest," she says.

"I think I played at the first one. It was, of course, a lot smaller and focused on local and regional artists. Then it started growing and growing. I tried to go around to all around to see all the artists that I could (early on). Over the years, I realized that I can't do that anymore. You've got to pick one or two a night."