Listening Closer: Lucinda Williams’ Lenten Liturgy
Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
You’ve probably heard that if you listen to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz, it’ll seem like they were meant to go together. Their profound synchronicity just seems too specific to be coincidental.
That’s how I felt a couple of weeks ago when some of my coworkers walked across the street for Seattle Pacific University’s Ash Wednesday service while I, behind schedule on several project deadlines, had to stay at my desk. As I worked, I wondered—as many Christians do during the 40 days before Easter—what exactly it would mean if I had gone with them: Would I have been merely reacting to a social media prompt out of a sense of peer-pressure obligation? Or would I have been capable of opening a place in my heart for meditation on Christ’s sufferings, for practicing reliance on God’s provision?
I didn’t have time to think it over, though. The clock was ticking. So I put on my headphones (music helps me focus) and pressed “play” on Lucinda Williams’ new double album The Ghosts of Highway 20, which had just arrived in my mailbox from Amazon.
These songs—they work as perfectly for an Ash Wednesday liturgy as Pink Floyd serves as a soundtrack for the Yellow Brick Road. While my friends had gone to the sanctuary, I went to church with Lucinda Williams.
On the album’s opener, Williams sings of a state of brokenness “so deep the sun seems black,” so severe that “you couldn’t cry if you wanted to.” She describes my own recent state of spirit and mind upon surveying the seemingly endless headlines about foreign wars, urban gun violence, natural disasters, deadly diseases, racist politicians, and a fearful populace: “You stare at the ceiling and wish the world would mend…”
But then comes the refrain:
Even your thoughts are dust
Even your thoughts are dust
Even your thoughts are dust
It’s true. My thoughts are despairing. But even more than that, they are fleeting. They are fickle. They will pass.
Ash Wednesday is about more than just remembering Christ’s suffering, though, about more than just the knowledge that we will follow him into the grave. It is about realizing that without his promises of eternal communion, we would stay in that grave, dead in our sins.
I thought of my coworkers, standing in line in the aisle of the church, then kneeling to have a cross of ash drawn across their forehead. I shoved the computer aside and ran my finger through the patch of dust that had gathered there. I touched it to my brow.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
“House of Earth”
Originally written by Woody Guthrie, this song gives voice to a siren—a woman who calls out to a married man, offering him the pleasure of sin off the path of fidelity, an escape from the common hardships of commitment. In the speaker’s seductive promises, I hear the temptations faced by Christ during those 40 days in the wilderness that we remember during Lent. The path of faithfulness, the path of self-denial, isn’t easy; the world wants us to surrender to the pursuit of happiness, the fulfillment of lust, the illusion of security. God, meanwhile, wants us to know that any substitute for the bread of life will turn to ash in our mouths. When we empty ourselves, we make room for sacred presence.
“I Know All About It”
This song reads like a letter to someone lonely, lost, and self-destructive; she may well be the very woman who made those false promises in the previous track. But this letter acts as an outstretched hand:
You lie in your bed and stare at the plaster peeling and
Wonder where your spirit went and that wild abandoned feeling
Something you always knew about, something you almost forgot
Hidden in a place somewhere deep down in your heart
Who is writing this letter? Who knows her so intimately and cares so much?
Why do you act like you don’t know me at all
Why do you, why do you turn your face to the wall
Girl don’t try to run away like that
I know about the pain and all of that jazz
Whoever it is, it reminds me of anyone who, in the spirit of Christ himself, sits down with me at my own empty wells and draws my attention back to living water. It reminds me of anyone who loves without lecturing, who begins as a faithful listener. During Lent, this song might as well be sung by Jesus himself.
Just when I think I might be stretching too far to find the gospel of Lent in the ash of Williams’ lyrics, she sings this:
Death came, death came
And gave you his kiss
Death came, death came
And took you away from this
Oh I miss you so and I long to know
Why death gave you his kiss
Isn’t that what we remember on Ash Wednesday? Aren’t we called to meditate on Christ’s path toward Calvary, on how he sweat blood in Gethsemane, and then was betrayed by one of his own? By wearing a cross made of dust, we mark ourselves as complicit in this betrayal—and yet that mark is also an expression of our longing for and dependence upon his grace.
“Doors of Heaven”
In this boisterous, bluesy demand, Williams sings of her own inability to earn her way to salvation: “I try to live my life in a righteous way / I try to do my best from day to day / But no matter how hard I try, it seems all I do is cry / So open up the doors of heaven let me in.”
During Lent, we remember that even our best is just the worst. We cannot win God’s favor with goodness. Our righteousness is reduced to ashes when we get a good look at God’s glory.
And yet, there’s an inspiring confidence in the demand of this refrain. Somehow we know that it’s possible: “I’m gonna walk in the glory and tell everyone my story.”
In this deceptively lazy and casual groove, Williams offers some of her most revealing confessions of childhood in the Deep South. The character singing reflects on days so hot you could “fry an egg on a sidewalk,” and how her Mama would “cuss” when something got spilled.
But then we zoom in on Mama and her own history—how her father “taught the Bible / Lake Charles to Monrose / Shreveport to Slydell / Baton Rouge to Tibadeux.” As the sun-scorched song moves on, the singer’s grandparents begin to cast a terrible shadow. The conclusion is nothing less than a lament—one that suggests that the singer’s own faith is hard-won, an uphill battle:
God knows it rains
But not enough to wash away
Sins of the father…
Isn’t that what we acknowledge when we mark our foreheads with ash?
The album’s other Tracks…
…they go on revealing gospel resonance throughout. In the title track, “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” it becomes hard to imagine that the spirit haunting every story that this Southern singer tells is anyone other than the one that Flannery O’Connor herself testified about: “…while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” “I have seen the signs that say / We’re closing in on the final days,” Williams sings, “But I’ve got nothing left to report / … my saving grace is with the ghost of Highway 20.”
“Faith and Grace”
I can’t imagine a song I need more during these days of dust and doubt. Williams goes light on the lyrics, knowing that the guitars are more than eloquent enough on the subject:
It seems like every door is locked
And I know He’s gonna hear me knock
And I know I’m gonna stand right
Cause I’m standing on the rock…
All I need is a little more faith and grace…
And with dust upon my forehead, my coworkers returning to their desks marked with the same, I no longer felt I’d missed the ritual observance of Ash Wednesday. I focused on the tasks in front of me, asked for a little more faith and grace, and said—am still saying—to Lucinda, “Amen.”