For any singer/songwriter, success as an artist can often be fleeting at best, and unattainable at worst.
You might last five years if you’re real lucky. A few more if you’re very lucky. If you get to ten, you’ve hit the jackpot. Beyond that, you just might land in legend status, that is, if your work, your craft, your ideals, the thing that makes you so special, stays on course at the very high level that you’ve established over your long career. It’s a rarity, a bigtime one, but it happens. And when it does, it’s pure magic.
In the span of five days, I had the incredible privilege of witnessing that magic first hand with two very special artists at virtually the same stage in their life and career, Lucinda Williams, 61, and John Hiatt, 62. In many ways, these two masterful songwriters have not only a very similar vibe and feel to their writing — one of honesty, grittiness, irony and self effacement — but despite their personal struggles, tragedies and surviving the mortal enemy of any musician, getting old, they have both reached that often unattainable pinnacle with their integrity and soul intact.
As for the inimitable Ms. Williams, she just released what could be considered her finest record yet, a double length collection of songs right in her wheelhouse, songs of hope, struggle, perseverance, falling short and rising up, called Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Williams stays true to form on her 12th album with exquisitely written songs that exude suffering and redemption, all delivered with her trademark smoky Louisiana drawl, and even throws in a tune from recent headlines, West Memphis, about the West Memphis Three. But overall, she is still able to transport us into her dark yet somehow still hopeful world, a world where you can just feel the ache, the pain and the glory all at once. Her live performance at the Lincoln here in DC held true to her stunning past live shows with a slew of deep meaningful songs, as she along with a stellar band ran the gamut from her fabulous catalog. The show was delivered with a humility and sincerity rarely seen from musicians, ever. Unexpectedly, via serendipity and the generosity of some newfound friends at the show, I was able to spend a good 20 minutes hanging out with Lucinda backstage at the show, just talking one on one, and it was a rare and exceptional experience. I could sense just by that very personal time with her why she is able to be so candid and honest in her songwriting. It’s because she is a humble and caring human being.
Five nights later, almost as if the songwriting gods were shining brightly down on me, I got to sit front row for John Hiatt at the Birchmere in Alexandria, and in some ways, I felt like I was seeing Lucinda’s male counterpart, her songwriting doppelganger. I’ve never heard the two compared before, but there is a definite similarity as far as not only their age, longevity and sheer rare talent, but in the depth and breadth of the emotion and stark realism and honesty in their lyrics. Monday night, Hiatt walked out onstage by himself, armed with only an acoustic guitar and several harmonicas sitting nearby, and let us into a cross sectional world of his indelible music. I felt like I was being allowed into another world of struggle and redemption similar to Williams’. We got to hear some of Hiatt’s breathtaking poetry about the Seven Little Indians, Ethylene, the Tiki Bar and others, including songs from his latest record issued this past summer, My Terms of Surrender. And all through his performance, he smiled his wry smile, like he was proud that we were so thankful to be a part of his world.
After having lost his brother to suicide and father to illness before he was 12, and then his wife years later who also took her own life, Hiatt has always let us in on the deepest of his feelings, as has Williams, who has had her share of hard times and has addressed suicide and other dark subjects on most of her albums. The righteousness and truthfulness of their stunning bodies of work is almost unparalleled in its starkness and candor. You always feel when you hear a Hiatt or Williams song that you are being told a story that is somehow related to their lives, and sometimes, your life as well, and you always feel honored to have been given that opportunity. That’s the mark of a rare and gifted songwriter. There are others who have also opened that rarified door to their listeners, but few have laid it all out as deeply and candidly, and for as long, as these two.
Have they both lost a tad of the vocal range of their youth? Maybe a little bit, but who doesn’t? If you haven’t, then you’re hoarding a fountain of youth somewhere, and I want a taste. But witnessing both of them within days of each other this past week, it’s not a measurable loss, and it is very easily overcome by the continued sincerity and realness of their most recent recorded work as well as their live performances that sets them apart from many of their peers, young and old.
If we’re lucky, we’ll have them both around for a while yet.