Lucinda Williams: Our Greatest Living Preacher

Lucinda Williams: Our Greatest Living Preacher October 6, 2014

Anticipation of Lucinda William’s new album has been growing for months. First there were blogs about it. Hints in the news. Then I heard about twenty minutes of it a few weeks back because NPR First Listen posted the whole two-disc set. I didn’t listen to the whole thing, because frankly, it’s a long album, and I never have that much time to stream an album before I get tempted by other albums. So I switched over to Deafheaven or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, I can’t remember which. No disregard for Lucinda at all, but my attention span shortens cast among the riches of NPR curated playlists.

On the day of the album release (so often Tuesdays these days), I opened Spotify, and thought to myself, “Now I can listen and SHARE with everyone in my network that I’m listening to it.” Except it wasn’t there. It didn’t release on Spotify. To listen to the album, you had to (*gasp*) buy it.

So I went to Amazon and agonized for a bit whether to purchase it on CD or LP. Practicality prevailed. I would want to listen to it in the car, so I bought the CD. It arrived two days later on the front step via Prime delivery, and tonight, the day of arrival, I’m already listening to the rest of the album on the tower two-channel speakers that sit both sides of our fireplace (I don’t believe in surround sound).

The first thing you notice on the second album is the bass on the first track. It’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the only song on the CD currently available on Spotify. The bass drives everything. You realize right away Lucinda is committed to this being a blues album. She is, always will be, a rocker, but this is also a blues album. And it is a double-down album. In an era when everybody downloads single tracks and the radio plays just one popular song by an artist, in a time when people don’t even have time to listen to an album, Lucinda Williams backs off Spotify, and extends the length of her album, something like 103 minutes of awesome.

Why does this matter? Well, perhaps it doesn’t, in any traditional sense. To Lucinda fans like myself it matters. To album aficionados, I guess it matters. It means we are constantly navigating the new terrain presented by the streaming digital availability of the whole body of Western music and beyond.

But it also connects with the way lots of other cultural products roll out. There are comparisons, for example, to sermons. We no longer live in an era when the pastor goes away to their study and emerges Sunday morning, standing up to present a word that has emerged, sui generis, from the mind of the preacher, the Word of God, and the inspiration of the Spirit.

Because of digital media, lots of us know far more what the pastor is up to mid-week than ever before. We even know how our pastors are preparing to preach. They ask questions on Facebook. They tweet hints. They share photos of slides from their Powerpoint. And because sharing is dynamic and interactive, clergy then map what they hear, the conversations that ensue, back into what emerges as the sermon Sunday morning.

After the Sunday morning, they also post their sermons on iTunes, or at least many do (I do… you can listen here… This is not unlike Spotify. The album is there, ALL the albums are there.

And if it is all there all the time, do you need to buy the album? Do you need to go to the concert? Clergy are learning that some people stay home and just stream the sermon from the comfort of their couch. Musicians are learning that fans stay home and Bluetooth the songs from Spotify to their Photive Cyrens. The music is now always with us, but we are less often with the musicians.

I don’t know what to make of this, to be honest. I subscribe to Spotify, and love it. Prior to Spotify, I’m not quite sure if I ever would have listened to the whole Miles Davis corpus. You can dig down into the catalog of artists and satisfy your completist needs. At a party, talking about a new band you love, you can immediately pull up their music and share it around. It’s kind of amazing. So I’m not at all down on Spotify.

Yet there is something magical about that physical object, the album. I’ve got the liner notes for Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone here next to me on the couch. I’m leafing through it as I write, to attend not only to the sound of Lucinda’s voice (which is perfect), but also the words. I can mention that Lucinda Williams hails from my town, Fayetteville, Arkansas. On this album, she even adapts, for the first time, a poem by her father, Miller Williams, emeritus professor at the University of Arkansas.

This is music from the bone, centered out of her place, grounded in who she is. For this reason, which admittedly is still an ideal on another level, is why I needed to “own” this album, not just stream it. I needed to open the cardboard sleeve, slide out the discs, and place them in the tray.

Hearing sermons is like that also, I hope. You can stream them, listen to them any time, anywhere, and that’s not all bad. But there is something about the moment of preaching, the experience of sliding into the pew (or seat), blinking back the morning light, and being there, that is like hearing a new track from a new album.

Part of this is that it won’t endure. A sermon will always be supplanted by the sermon that comes next Sunday. If every sermon is available, an on-line archive of everything I’ve ever preached (and to a certain extent, there is), the sermon that arrives this week is buried in an avalanche of past preaching, or it might be better said that all that past preaching is constantly in the process of burying itself in its self-referentiality. Whoever will actually go back and listen?

There is always another Tuesday of new albums. As Lucinda sings on track six of disk two, “The temporary nature of any precious thing, that just makes it, just makes it more precious.” When everything is always available, somehow its aura slips away. I imagine this is why some of us go back to listening to records, and why some people even like tapes, it deepens the warming aura.

It makes me wonder what it was like to hear preaching before the era of audio enhancement. They say George Whitefield could be heard for blocks and blocks over crowds of ten thousands. Could anyone call out like that today? Perhaps only an orator like Lucinda, whose vocals rise above the fray.

But Lucinda would be the first to say, as she does on the next track, “You gotta make the most of what equipment you’ve got.” We can too quickly romanticize these things. I don’t think we yet know how we will listen to sermons ten years from now, anymore than we know whether the CD will survive the decade. But in the meantime, there are always better and worse ways to discern, as Lucinda clearly knows, the truth that arrives at that place where the spirit meets the bone.

BC_ClintSchnekloth_bioClint Schnekloth is lead pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has blogged for more than a decade as “Lutheran Confessions,” and consults widely on digital social media ministry. His recent book Mediating Faith is featured in the Patheos Book Club here.

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