Inside Story

Late bloomer

Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams’s memoir is an instant classic

Zora Simic Books 10 July 2023 1492 words

Shades and seasons: Lucinda Williams performing at the Bottom Line in New York in January 1994, the year she won her first Grammy Award. Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

My first exposure to the music of Lucinda Williams was on a road trip around the United States with friends back in the 1990s. Intrigued by the grinning out-of-time photograph of the singer on the front, I had picked up a cassette tape of her second album Happy Woman Blues at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. We played the tape over and over, each song striking us as an instant classic. I’ve been a Lucinda tragic ever since and the lyrics to the title track became my personal anthem, especially the opening lines: Tryin’ hard to be a healthy woman/ But sometimes life just overcomes me.

When Williams recorded Happy Woman Blues in 1980 for the Smithsonian Folkways label she was twenty-seven years old, the genre of “alt country” (a term she’s perennially associated with but not fond of) had yet to be coined, and her biggest album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was eighteen years off. This year, Car Wheels turned twenty-five (another of those classic album anniversaries guaranteed to make gen X people feel their mortality) and Williams turned seventy. She’s also released a new album, gone on tour, including to Australia, and published her enthralling memoir, the enticingly titled Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You.

“I don’t want to be one of those sugarcoated books like you find at Walgreens,” Williams tells an interviewer as prelude to the book. No chance. As every fan knows from her songs, steeped in experience and hard-won wisdom, she’s done her time: on the road, with men who broke her heart, and in the small and big towns she eventually felt compelled to leave or return to.

One of the thrills of reading this memoir is the chance to go behind the scenes of those songs, both in terms of her process and in relation to life. Throughout, I had to stop reading and listen immediately to the song being discussed, whether it was an old favourite of mine like “Side of the Road,” from her 1988 self-titled album, or a hidden gem I’d never clicked with before, like “Crescent City” from the same album.

First though, we read about the forces that shaped her, beginning with her parents and the southern towns and families they came from. Eschewing the advice of an “older gentleman” not to write about her childhood and just “write about the music,” Williams — who is candid about the therapy she’s had — puts her early years front and centre. On both sides are ministers and poets, including her father, the award-winning poet and university professor Miller Williams. He thought the “poets were doing the same thing his father, Ernest, had been doing through his ministry — teaching something that was mostly hidden to the rest of the world.”

Williams is indebted to her lineage — “it’s easy for me to find myself in my ancestry” — and this includes frankly addressing its darker aspects. Among the most bracing secrets she shares are about her mother, Lucille Fern Day, who “went by Lucy” and grew up in abject poverty in an abusive family headed by her “hell-fire and brimstone” Methodist minister father. Williams offers a loving, complex and open-ended portrait: Lucy played piano and read voraciously, and Williams’s happy memories of her include laughing at “all sorts of things.”

Like Sylvia Plath, though, Lucy would “drift in and out” of mental illness and was hospitalised numerous times. It was only decades later that Williams learned from her father and sister Karyn more details about the “horrifying ways” her mother was molested by men in her family, revelations she is “still trying to process.”

Perhaps inevitably, her parents’ marriage eventually collapsed under this and various other pressures, including constant changes of location while her father pursued his academic career. At eleven, her family moved to Santiago, Chile. From fourteen to sixteen, Lucinda happily lived in New Orleans, where she saw Jimi Hendrix live and was later expelled from school for protesting at racial injustice by refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1970, aged seventeen, she played her first live shows with family friend and folk musician Clark Jones (the first of a series of “guardian angel” figures in her musical life) while living in Mexico City. In all, she moved house twelve times before she turned eighteen.

Given the perpetual movement, Williams has “always been comfortable on the road, to keep my career going. It’s in my blood.” The “special bond” she shared with her father also endured right up until his death in 2015, and it was him she chose to live with when her parents split up. The bond was tested when she was twelve, when her thirty-five-year-old father moved his undergraduate student Jordan — Williams’s “future stepmother” — into the family home as a babysitter while her parents were ostensibly still together. Williams dates her obsessive-compulsive disorder to this development, but overwhelmingly her portrait of Miller is imbued with gratitude and affection.

More than once, Williams wryly notes that literary types — like her dad and one of his famous party guests, Charles Bukowski — are far more hedonistic in her experience than musicians are. Still, as delicious as the literary anecdotes are, it’s when she writes about music that her memoir truly soars. When she was introduced to Bob Dylan’s new album Highway 61 Revisited at the age of twelve, “it struck me like a bolt of lightning” and set her on her life path: “Between that record and Joan Baez with her jeans and little t-shirt and bare feet and long hair, I knew this was what I wanted to be.”

When she moved to New York City in 1979, after the release of her first album, a mutual friend introduced her to Dylan after one of her gigs. The “kinetic energy,” she writes, “was palpable.” Two decades later, “Dylan’s people” offered her an opening spot on his tour with Van Morrison, but — Bob being Bob — they didn’t speak during the whole tour.

For Williams, there is no higher compliment than to be compared to Dylan or Neil Young, artists who “could pretty much do whatever they wanted,” an opportunity she knows “not many women are given.” But while her songwriting is now widely recognised as comparable to theirs and other greats’, Williams’s road to fame was full of detours, setbacks and obstacles. These include dodgy record deals, shelved recording sessions and a music industry that didn’t quite know whether to classify her and her music as country or as rock (she prefers to align herself with “the blues”).

And, of course, there’s sexism in there as well, evident in how her attention to detail and determination to get it right — captured most vividly in the re-recording of Car Wheels after she was left unsatisfied by the first version — have seen her labelled as an “obsessive perfectionist.” As music writer Holly George-Warren has pointed out, this characterisation as “difficult” is not doled out to male artists like Bruce Springsteen or John Fogerty, who have also taken a long time to make records.

When Williams’s breakthrough self-titled album came out in 1988, she was thirty-five years old and had “basically been playing music every day since I was twelve, hustling day jobs to make ends meet.” As she writes, “I’m a complete anomaly in the music world, a late bloomer.” By her account, it took some time to communicate “what I felt and heard in my head,” but she never stopped moving or honing her craft as she immersed herself in one music scene after another.

Along the way there were also “stupid flirtations with various men,” as well as more substantial love affairs and connections. As she confesses, the type of man she was attracted to — prior to settling down with her current husband, her manager Tom Overby, whom she married on stage in 2009 — is best described as a “poet on a motorcycle.” Among them is the singer Ryan Adams (he inspired the song “Those Three Days” on her 2003 album World Without Tears), for whom she has maintained affection despite sexual misconduct allegations against him.

Lucinda Williams, if it isn’t clear by now, has lived a rich, exciting and challenging life and Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You emerges from her determination to reckon with it in all its shades and seasons. With themes and insights that should resonate with readers beyond her substantial and devoted fanbase, it makes for riveting reading. As with her songs, her prose is both economical and poetic, and radiates with truth and authenticity. Over the past decade or so, there has been a boom in memoirs and autobiographical writing by women in music, and hers enters the field — like her album Happy Woman Blues — as an instant classic. •

Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You
By Lucinda Williams | Simon & Schuster | $39.99 | 400 pages