Thank Johnny Depp for Lucinda Williams’ participation in West of Memphis:Voices for Justice, the excellent soundtrack for West of Memphis. Through a chance meeting with the Edward Scissorhands actor, Williams, the legendary roots-rock singer, became involved with the case of the West Memphis Three, the Arkansas men who were wrongfully convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in a satanic ritual.
“It makes me feel good to be involved,” says Williams, over the phone from Austin, Texas. “It was such a travesty and an injustice, and those three kids fell into the cracks of a broken justice system.”
Those three “kids”—Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols, who was originally sentenced to death—were forced into false confessions to the crime in 1994, the result of police coercion, media passivity, and a then-American panic over Satanic cults. But the trio also became a cause celebre: 1996 documentary Paradise Lost detailed their trial, while celebrities from Eddie Vedder to Metallica voiced their support for the three.
Which leads us to Hobbit director Peter Jackson’s doc, West of Memphis. Hailed critically as the definitive West Memphis Three doc, its recently released soundtrack also brought out stars in force: Vedder, Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson, and Patti Smith all contribute songs. Williams’ song, a stripped-down re-recorded version of “Joy,” might be the soundtrack’s most dramatically effective number.
“I was going to try to write a new song about the case,” says Williams. “But the [producers of the soundtrack] asked me to cut a different version of ‘Joy,’ because it had a line about West Memphis. I initially wrote it as a piss-off song about an unfaithful lover, but over the years, the meaning of that song changed.
“Bettye Levette covered it, and then I heard that in the  Wisconsin protests, as they were storming the capital, people were chanting ‘Joy’—like, ‘They can’t take our joy!’ It’s great. It goes along with what I believe.”
Meanwhile, the West of Memphis: Voices for Justice, along with her contributions to ABC TV series Nashville, will tide Williams fans until her next album, which she hopes will see a September release. She hasn’t yet settled on a title for the LP, but she’s reportedly written 40-plus tracks, and they promise to be diverse.
A live rendition of “Joy”:
“Well, there’s one called ‘Bitter Memory,’ it’s more on the country-rockabilly end, and there’s a soul balled which’ll be called ‘Place in My Heart,’” she divulges. “And there’s some ‘60s soul stuff, some Black Keys-ish songs and some real primal, stomping, hellfire and brimstone blues. Some of the stuff is already finished — and it’s really varied.”
Stream West of Memphis: Voices of Justice over at CBC Music.