September 25, 2017, was the last of a three-concert stand at the Hollywood Bowl in which Lucinda Williams opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. She'd just finished her set when Petty's manager informed her that the headliner wanted her to stop in before he went on stage. Williams tried to demur; she didn't want to take advantage of a polite gesture to impose. But the manager insisted.
"He took me down to his dressing room and knocked on the door," says Williams. "And Tom opened the door, just his little, sweet face. He never forgot where he was from. He was a Florida boy through and through. I hugged him and somebody took a picture."
She couldn't have known it at the time, but that was the last time she'd see Petty, who died a week later of a drug overdose. That makes Williams the last artist to ever open a show for the late legend.
"Our friendship was building; it's not like we had been real close friends for a long time," she recalls. "There was a bond. There was something we had between us that I felt like would just continue to grow. I get so emotional every time I talk about him or sing one of his songs. I really feel like there was this sort of brother-sister connection."
Lu and Tom were both native Southerners — he from Florida, she from Louisiana. Their drawly cadence, low and slow, wasn't dissimilar, nor were their blond mop-tops. Hair'll wind up that way anyway if you rock hard enough, so why not start from the split end? Petty was three years Williams' senior and found mainstream rock-and-roll success very early in his career in the 1970s. Williams, a critical darling and brilliant songwriter in the tweener Americana genre, didn't find a wide audience until 1998, with the release of her fifth album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She would go on to tour with the likes of Bob Dylan and Petty, who covered Williams' scorcher "Changed the Locks" for the soundtrack of the Edward Burns film She's the One.
Now 67, Williams has continued to record and perform live — until COVID brought the latter industry to a screeching halt. She and her husband/manager, Tom Overby, had recently relocated from Southern California to East Nashville, where they were knocked doubly off-kilter in March by the roughly simultaneous descent of the coronavirus and a tornado that swept through town and damaged their house.
Impelled to hunker down for a lot longer than she's accustomed to, Williams says of her and Overby's COVID lifestyle, "Might as well sit here and watch this Netflix series until four in the morning. We're not really on a schedule to speak of. Left to our own devices, we're like a couple of kids: We're gonna eat all the food and stay up as late as we want."
But COVID also gave wings to a notion that had been kicking around in Overby's head for quite a while: a series of streamed concerts in which Williams would cover some of her favorite artists (Petty, Dylan, the Rolling Stones) or musical styles (southern soul, '60s country, Christmas tunes). Along with Williams' regular lead guitarist Stuart Mathis and some ace Nashville sidemen — her regular drummer, Butch Norton, was stuck in Los Angeles owing to the pandemic — she ventured to producer Ray Kennedy's Room and Board studio and performed a new set of covers every two weeks while cameras rolled.
The series, "Lu's Jukebox," benefits some of Williams' favorite small venues around the world (including two in Florida) that have had to close down during the pandemic. With each concert viewable in a 48-hour window for a $20 fee, the series started with the Petty tribute on October 29 and will conclude with Williams and her band performing the music of the Rolling Stones on New Year's Eve. This Thursday, November 19, brings a set of Dylan covers, including "Idiot Wind" and "Man of Peace."
"We didn't want any of the corporate venues; they'll survive. We wanted the ones who'd supported artists like Lu for 30 years. And they're our favorite ones anyway," says Overby. "Our favorite restaurants — we can order takeout and tip good. We can order online from our favorite record stores. The venues, this is how you help them. And the fans feel really good about it; they get to pick the venue they're contributing to."
"I hope that people are left with a sense of how important these venues are — how out of all this darkness comes all this awareness, not to take them for granted," Williams adds.
The stunner of Williams' Petty set is "Room at the Top," culled from Echo, a relatively minor album in the Heartbreakers canon. Choosing to open that record with a tune about divorcing your first wife was a raw reveal of Petty's state of mind in 1999 when Echo was released. Williams takes the sad, slow song, slows it down even further, and weeps openly at the end.
"It spoke to the loneliness that can happen after you get famous and you're out on the road and touring," she says by way of explaining her connection to the song. "You've got all this great stuff happening, but there's a loneliness that goes along with that. He wrote a lot about that — 'You Don't Know How It Feels,' 'It's Good to be King.' You're at the top, but there's this wistfulness. You can take that story and apply it to a lot of different situations." (Petty himself reportedly never played "Room at the Top" live after the Echo tour, a bit of rock trivia Williams says she was unaware of.)
Introducing her cover of "Southern Accents" during the streamed show, Williams spoke about how Petty specifically requested that she play the tune at a benefit honoring him as MusiCares Person of the Year in early 2017. Songs of the south — "Southern Accents," "Rebels," "Gainesville," "Louisiana Rain," and the lyrical masterclass "Down South" — comprised roughly half the Jukebox set, and not by accident.
"'Down South' — that made me realize even more how connected he was to where he's from," she says of the song. "He wants people to be proud of him. I've dealt with that a lot — the whole 'you can't go home again' thing. And probably not everybody was proud of him; some people were probably envious. As a daughter of the South with my own dysfunctional family issues, I picked up on that right away."
To close out the livestream, Williams played a shimmering version of a new original of her own, "Stolen Moments," dedicating it to Petty's memory and to his widow, Dana.
"[My] friendship with Dana has continued to grow," Williams says. "She's so sensitive and sweet, very dear. The love they had between each other, you could just see it when you're around her. We were texting with her right after the [Jukebox] show. She was overjoyed; she cried.
"You can see how Tom fell in love with her," Williams goes on. "She still talks about [his death] like it was yesterday. It just makes you wonder, 'How do you move on after something like that?'"
Lu's Jukebox. Lucinda Williams will perform the songs of Bob Dylan at 8 p.m. EST on Thursday, November 19. Tickets are $20 to $40 and are available via lucindawilliams.com.