NEW YORKER: The musician David Byrne once compared the intuitive writing of Bill Buford to the work of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Since 1995, Buford has contributed nearly fifty pieces to The New Yorker. He has written about a wide array of subjects, including his butchery apprenticeship in Tuscany, the connoisseurs who seek the perfect dark chocolate, and the art of breadmaking in Lyon, France. The New Yorker’s former fiction editor, he has also published three books, including “Among the Thugs” and “Heat.” One of my favorite pieces by Buford is “Delta Nights,” a ruminative Profile of the country-blues singer Lucinda Williams, published in 2000. Williams, Buford observes, is an amalgam — a musician capable of working in a multitude of genres and conveying a variety of keen emotions. Like some of her musical influences, she’s gifted with a voice so rough and husky that the singer Emmylou Harris once described it, in Buford’s paraphrasing, as “capable of peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Her music often calls upon, and simultaneously subverts, Southern narratives. Her work, Buford writes, “is more poem than song, a surrealistic invocation of Southernness not unlike the kitschy religious shrines and turquoise serpents and bottle-cap Christs in Lucinda’s own house. It’s a bit of mythmaking, by a poet of loss, about a place that’s receding from experience, and that might never have been there in the first place.” Williams’s explorations of the Delta in her music echo Buford’s own childhood recollections of the South. At the core of the region’s mythos, he notes, in languorous ripples of prose, is a love affair with the notion of loss and dispossession. Williams’s earthy musical tones and biting verses exquisitely capture this sense of loss. It is her ability to transform personal melancholia into vibrant, evocative strains, Buford discovers, that captivates listeners—and offers a raw glimpse into the genesis of a singular musician’s artistic journey.—Erin Overbey, New Yorker Archive Editor
NEW YORKER: It’s a damp Delta night in January, and we’ve pulled into Lambert, in Quitman County, Mississippi, at one time a modestly prosperous cotton town, now reduced to a rather curious thing. The railway station—stripped down and operated in an only-one-man-needs-to-run-it kind of way—is still functioning as an agricultural freight stop, more or less as it always has, but it seems to be the exception. The town center consists of two rows of Main Street-like buildings, vaguely Victorian in design, relics of nineteenth-century antebellum cotton commerce, almost all of them abandoned. One of these would have housed the barbershop, or the bank, or the post office. Now they’re home to whomever, whatever, anybody, nobody. One was the Rexall drugstore. (The “x” in Rexall has broken off.) The feeling of the place is of impoverished improvisation, variations on a squatter’s theme, and Lambert’s empty buildings have been taken up by anyone who has the know-how to crack open a padlocked door and get the electricity turned on. As we pull in, flames leap out from a corner, the only light on a street without street lights: it’s a barbecue, the pit constructed from fallen loose bricks, right out on the sidewalk. The town seems to be deadly desolate, and yet, weirdly, it is also busy with people.
It’s Saturday night, and we’re in the heart of the heart of the Delta, the homeland of the blues. Our drive began in Clarksdale, near the birthplace of Muddy Waters, and continued through the very crossroads where Robert Johnson, seventy-two years ago, was supposed to have done his legendary transaction with the Devil, exchanging his soul for a satanic facility on guitar. And for half an hour we’ve been on county highways, all straight lines and right angles, cutting through plowed fields of cotton and soybean, seeing no other vehicles, no people, no lights except the distant dull blue of a farmhouse television, and then this explosion of busyness, in this place near no place, an embellished dot on a road map. We park, get out. Main Street is thrumming—a heavy, amplified bass coming from behind a number of boarded-up store-fronts. We pick a solid, thickly painted door, which gives after I push against it, and it opens up to the sweet, acrid smell of a woodstove, a smoky array of blue and green lights dangling from an overhead pipe, and, atop a stage in the corner, a sixty-year-old man in a two-piece suit and brown patent-leather shoes—Johnnie Billington playing electric guitar.
This is the first stop on a visit to Delta juke joints, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by that profoundly unmodern, unreconstructed feeling that you still find in the South. I’m here because of an interest in Lucinda Williams, the Louisiana-born singer and writer, and although she isn’t with me tonight (she’s in Nashville, singing with the North Mississippi All Stars—as it happens, a Delta blues band), the Delta has served Williams as a highly personal, emotional reference library, something she keeps coming back to in her music, for images or metaphors or, sometimes, for its famous twelve-bar arrangements and its flattened blue notes. Williams is forty-seven, and, obsessively working and reworking a small collection of tunes, has created a concentrated repertoire of around three dozen exceptionally powerful songs. For a thirty-five-year effort (Williams began playing when she was twelve), that works out to about a song a year, and it’s still possible to see a live show in which she gets a little carried away—and she always seems to be on the verge of getting a little carried away—and hear almost the entire œuvre, as was the case about eighteen months ago at New York’s Irving Plaza, when Williams’s encores went on longer than the act, and the audience emerged, after nearly two and a half hours, thoroughly spent, not only by the duration of the program but also by the unforgiving rawness of the songs. They’re unforgiving because they are so relentlessly about pain or longing or can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head sexual desire, but most often they’re about loss, and usually about losing some impossible fuckup of a man, who has got more charm and charisma than a civilized society should allow, and who never lives up to any of the promises he made when he was drunk, on drugs, in lust, in love, incarcerated, in pain, insane, in rehab, or, in some other essential but frustratingly appealing romantic way, unaccountable. He’s usually from Baton Rouge, Louisiana (and a bass player), or from Lafayette, Louisiana (and a bass player), or from Lake Charles, Louisiana (and a bass player), or maybe from Greenville, Mississippi (and a bass player), and the songs come across as both very Southern and also painfully autobiographical. Ouch! you think after you’ve heard Lucinda Williams for the first time, this girl has gone through some shit. Her songs are not traditional rock and roll, if only because they are more written, more preoccupied with the concerns of language and image, than most rock tunes. They’re not country, although there is an occasional twangy country element. They’re not folk, even though “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” her 1998 album (and her first commercial success), got a Grammy award for the best contemporary-folk record of the year. And they’re not blues, even though they are informed by something that might be described as a blues attitude. MORE