The title track of her raw, haunting new album was inspired by that long stretch of road that bisects Atlanta and runs from Florence, S.C., to Nowheresville, West Texas.
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles in her whiskey-soaked Southern drawl, Williams said the notion that I-20 might hold some creative juice for her came a few years ago when she played a show in Macon, where she once lived during her itinerant childhood.
“I hadn’t been there in a long time, but it just seemed like the same town,” she said. “There were these little unisex barbershops that had been there since the ’60s, and there was barely any sign of anything that had moved in, with the exception of, like, a little Asian restaurant or something. It just had this feel.”
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Like many a good country song, the seed for “The Ghosts of Highway 20” was planted when Williams hit the road.
“As we were leaving, I was on the bus looking out the window and we passed these exit signs: Jackson, that’s where my sister was born. Vicksburg, that’s where my brother was born. Monroe, La.,” she trailed off at the mention of the town where her mother grew up and is now buried. “Later I looked on a map, and I realized, wow! Highway 20 runs through all these towns that I’m connected with from my childhood.”
I know this road like the back of my hand / Same with the stations, only FM band / Farms and truck stops, firework stands / I know this road like the back of my hand / Southern secrets still buried deep / Rooting and restless ‘neath the cracked concrete / If you were from here, you would fear me / To the death along with the ghost of Highway 20.
Williams describes the song as a bookend to “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the title track on the 1998 album that put her on the map and won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, although the sound is more an amalgam of country and blues.
“In ‘Car Wheels,’ I’m a child riding in the backseat,” she said. “And in ‘Highway 20,’ I’m driving the car myself.”
Some of Williams’ most influential childhood experiences occurred along I-20, including the day she tagged along with her father, the late poet Miller Williams, to visit Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia in Milledgeville.
Williams admitted her memories were vague, but she recalled that the author had a strict writing schedule and they arrived while O’Connor was still working. A housekeeper instructed them to wait on the porch until she was ready to receive them.
“My dad went in and they talked and talked and visited, and I just played and ran around the yard and chased the peacocks,” said Williams.
“As soon as I came of age, however old I was, 14, 15, 16, I read everything I could get my hands on of hers, and I completely fell madly in love with her writing.
“I later realized over the years how much her writing had influenced my songwriting,” said Williams. “I just identified with her writing so much because she talks about religion and the South, and all the contradictions with that, which I understood as a Southerner. You know, the whole go out and raise hell on Saturday and go to church on Sunday kind of thing.”
Williams points to her songs “Get Right With God,” “Atonement” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” as being directly influenced by O’Connor’s work, especially the 1952 novel “Wise Blood.”
Miller Williams also took his young, impressionable daughter to see the street performer the Rev. Pearly Brown, aka Blind Pearly Brown, a Macon fixture at the time.
“That was another definitive moment in my life,” Williams said. “The first song I ever wanted to play was Blind Pearly Brown’s ‘God Don’t Never Change.’ That was my first exposure to Delta Blues. I was only 6 years old. It found a way into my psyche.”
On Williams’ current tour, which stops at the Decatur Square where she headlines the Amplify Decatur Music Festival on April 22, she performs “The Ghosts of Highway 20” solo.
“It kind of splits the show,” she said. The first half is performed with the band; the second half is done solo.
Next up for Williams is the fall release of a newly recorded version of her 1992 record “Sweet Old World,” including four bonus tracks, to commemorate the album’s 25th anniversary.
“It sounds like a brand-new album,” she said. “My voice is different now, it’s richer. The keys are all different on it. And the musicians are different.”
The album was recorded with her current band, along with guitar and pedal steel player Greg Leisz, who played on the original album.
“I’m just over the moon about it,” she said.
Williams credits her husband and manager, Tom Overby, for suggesting the project. Overby also shares co-writing credit on “The Ghosts of Highway 20” for conceiving the song, and it was his idea for her to transform her father’s poem “Dust” into a song for the new record.
“He nudges me in a good way,” Williams said. “We have a great working relationship.”
At an age when some musicians begin to slow down, Williams seems to be punching the gas pedal.
“I’m 64. I can’t believe it even when I say it,” she said. “I thought when people get this age, you’re really old. And some people are.”
If anything, Williams appears to be hitting her stride.
“I’ve gotten more confident as a songwriter,” she said. “I’m in a good place in my career. You start to figure out who you are.”