Thirty-some years into her celebrated Grammy-winning career, Williams rediscovered the joys of singing alone last fall on a visit to her professor father in Fayetteville, Ark., when she ended up playing two nights at a little joint called George's Majestic Lounge.
"It's unusual for me to play solo. It ended up being a real positive experience," Williams said from her Los Angeles home.
As a result, she's doing a few solo gigs on her way to Toronto, where her band starts a tour March 4, "just for a change of pace," she said. "This is an experiment. We had so much fun at that venue at Fayetteville, and there are so many other cool venues like that."
Her new album, "Blessed," will be released Tuesday. It's her third full-length in four years, a prolific pace compared with the seven studio albums she made in the first 24 years of her career.
"This prolific stuff started after I lost my mother in March, 2004," Williams said. "Plus, I was in a really destructive relationship. I started writing and writing, and I met Tom. The big test after Tom and I got together was: Am I going to be able to still write like this? He passed the test. I frankly hadn't been able to have a good relationship before in the sense that I felt productive, prolific, and creative in a relationship."
The excellent and remarkably diverse disc was produced by Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones), whom Williams met a year ago at a Grammys tribute to Neil Young. One of his key contributions was hooking her up with superstar mixer Bob Clearmountain -- the guy who puts the final polish on albums by Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones, and the Pretenders. "Bob remixed it," she said, "and it just pushed everything up a notch, or two, or three."
While Williams is known as the queen of heartache, "Blessed" has a striking range of emotions and topics. It contains some of this century's slowest, sultriest love songs, including the smoldering, late-night "Born to Be Loved," the hymn-like "Kiss Like Your Kiss" and the accordion-embraced "Sweet Love."
For the first time, Williams sings about war. "Soldier's Song" is told from the dual reality of the man fighting overseas and his wife at home with their child.
"It's a subject matter I've been wanting to write about, but it's not easy to do without pointing a finger and getting your politics all involved in that," Williams said. "I'm better at the humanitarian aspect, writing from the person's feelings. I've always wanted to write some topical songs. Steve Earle's real good at that. It's really hard for me. It ends up sounding too corny."
"Seeing Black" is about suicide, the second time she has addressed the topic (1992's "Sweet Old World" was the other).
"What sparked that was when I heard about (singer/songwriter) Vic Chesnutt's suicide," she said. "We didn't know each other really well. Of course, I was stunned and saddened. This is just kind of 'Sweet Old World Part 2,' but it has a whole different vibe. My perspective is going to be different at 58 than it was at 42."
One of the big discoveries on "Blessed" is the guitar player whom co-producer Overby invited -- Elvis Costello.
Said Williams: "Elvis e-mailed Tom and said, 'Are you sure this e-mail went to the right place?' Tom said that Elvis will just tear these things up. He came, and he had three or four different guitars, and I just sat in the control room and Elvis just started [playing], and my jaw dropped."
Judging by his expressively bluesy, delightfully twangy and mournfully majestic contributions to "Blessed," Costello could be a guitar hero in his spare time -- just as Williams can be a solo performer in hers.