On her upcoming album "Little Honey," Lucinda Williams makes the case that becoming a musician does not exactly put you on the fast track to happiness.
In "Rarity," she mournfully tells the story of an ultratalented singer-songwriter who can't find her way in the music industry: "No hits on the radio/No one knows who you are/No big deal with a video/So you're never gonna be a star."
"Little Rock Star" was inspired by the self-destructive ways of too-much, too-soon stars like Amy Winehouse. "With all your talent, so much to gain/To toss it away like that would be such a shame," Williams sings.
And in a twangy cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)," Williams sounds like a wizened road warrior, sourly dispensing advice to young, wide-eyed musicians: "Gettin' had/Gettin' took/I tell you folks, it's harder than it looks/It's a long way to the top, if you wanna rock 'n' roll."
Yet Williams, 55, has beaten the odds, and created a fulfilling life as a musician.
A recording artist since the late '70s (though she didn't hit her stride until the late '80s), she's a hero to young roots-rock musicians, and one of the most universally respected songwriters of her generation. She has won three Grammys, and her songs have been covered by everyone from Mary Chapin Carpenter ("Passionate Kisses") and Emmylou Harris ("Sweet Old World") to Tom Petty ("Changed the Locks"). Elvis Costello guests on "Little Honey," dueting on the honky-tonk duet, "Jailhouse Tears."
Her fan base is large enough to allow her to play venues like the 5,600-capacity WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. She will be there on Friday with her backing group Buick 6, who will also present an opening set.
Improbably, for a songwriter who has returned, again and again, to the subject of unfulfilling relationships, she is also at peace in her personal life. She has been engaged to marry her manager and co-producer, Tom Overby, since 2006. ("We just haven't found the time" to marry, she says.) There are quite a few upbeat love songs on "Little Honey" (due in stores Oct. 14), including "Real Love," which starts with the line, "I found the love I was looking for."
She doesn't have much use for the idea that personal contentment might take away her artistic edge.
"Things will never be TOO good," she says in her soft-southern drawl (she has spent most of her life in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee, though she is now based in Los Angeles). "No one person makes you 100 percent happy, 24 hours a day. Just because I'm in a settled-down, committed relationship doesn't mean that I'm not going to have my ups and downs, either personally or with what I witness in the world around me.
"Certainly, I'm extremely distressed about this current political situation, and the upcoming election, and the future of this country, and what's going on in the rest of the world. There are plenty of things to worry about, and get bummed out about."
"Little Honey" isn't her only new release. She will also put out, Oct. 28, a digital-only EP partially devoted to classic protest songs such as Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth."
"Plan To Marry," from "Little Honey," is a protest song of sorts, too, expressing a belief that love can be used as a "weapon" against war and corruption.
And "Rarity" is really a protest song, as well. Williams says she was inspired, in part, by following the career of singer/songwriter Mia Doi Todd, whose commercial success has never matched her critical acclaim. Todd did release a major-label album in 2002, but it didn't sell well, and she was dropped.
"It was just the whole classic scenario," says Williams. "I saw that and said, 'Well, here we go again with a brilliant artist who can't sell enough records to stay on a major label.' And they drop her, even though she's a great artist.
"I used that particular situation to make a point. I've certainly seen my share of personal ups and downs, and witnessed it with other artists. And I thought it was an interesting topic. I'm trying to spread out a bit and write about different things besides unrequited love -- boy meets girl, boy dumps girl. After a while you've got to find other stuff to write about."
After many years on the road, it also helps to find some new kinds of shows to present. Last year, Williams tried something different, mounting five-show series in New York and Los Angeles where she played one of her five most-revered albums in the first half of each show, then other songs (often with the help of guests, ranging from Steve Earle to Yo La Tengo) in the second half.
Like most veteran artists, Williams has some older songs that she plays a lot, some she plays occasionally, and some she virtually never plays.
"I was nervous about some of them, because I wasn't sure if I was going to remember how to do them," she says. "Some of them I hadn't played in so long, and some of them ... I would see them and think, 'This is not one of my greatest songs.'
"But it's a good exercise as a writer, because everybody likes different songs. It's not fair for me to say, 'Oh, that's not as good of a song' or something, because there's always going to be one person who says, 'That's my favorite song.' It's good to be able to go back and look at your early songs, and embrace them."
Coincidentally, Williams also revisits her songwriting past on "Little Honey," recording old but previously unreleased compositions such as "Circles and X's," "Well Well Well" and "If Wishes Were Horses."
She was inspired, in party, by Laura Cantrell, who found an old, unreleased Williams song ("Letters") on a demo tape, and recorded it for her own 2005 album, "Humming By the Flowered Vine."
"I was completely blown away when I saw that she had done that," says Williams. "I must have written that song 30 years ago; I never thought it would see the light of day. It's never even been published. But she found it and brought it to life, and it made me think, 'Maybe I should go back and revisit some of those songs I put away.'"
Sometimes, it also pays to revisit an old songwriting idea. Williams had been thinking about writing a song like "Little Rock Star" for a long time, for instance, but didn't make it happen until recently.
"There's always maybe a person, or a small event, or just something I read that will spark a song," says Williams. "Definitely the Amy Winehouse stories went into that. And then before that it was Ryan Adams, or Kurt Cobain -- just all of the tragedies and trials. And I remember being at the studio one day and there was a big story in Rolling Stone about Pete Doherty, and I was like, 'OK, this song has to come out now.'"
It's a pretty brutal song, with lines like "It's clear you have a death wish" and "You bend over backwards to make a statement/Hang from the rafters, and lick the pavement." Williams -- who has struggled with her own demons far from the prying eyes of the tabloids -- admits she wouldn't have written it unless she related to the lifestyle in some way.
"It's an empathetic look at that whole thing," she says. "Whenever I write a song, even if I'm observing someone else, I'm in it too. I have to be an empathetic bystander, or else I wouldn't be able to write about it."