Lucinda Williams: Where The Songs Find Me
photo: Danny Clinch
“Off and on for years, people would say, ‘You need to write a book,’” Lucinda Williams recalls, as she shares the origins of her poignant new memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. “That’s because so many of my songs were narrative, and every time I would perform, I would tell little stories behind the songs. So I think people wanted to know more details.”
The book certainly realizes this intention. Williams shares a candid account of her mother’s mental illness as well as a peripatetic childhood, in which she resided in a dozen different locales through the age of 18, while her father pursued a series of jobs before landing a full-time position as an English professor at the University of Arkansas. Williams then delineates the correlation between her worldly experiences and her musical expressions, at times illustrating her point via pertinent song lyrics.
Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, which draws its title from Williams’ song “Metal Firecracker” off her celebrated 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, offers many additional hard-wrought insights from her career as an artist. The work is also a lively survey of cultural history that interweaves her family’s association with notable figures and places, including Flannery O’Connor, George Haley, Orval Faubus, Charles Bukowski, Preservation Hall and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Although she is still recovering from a stroke she suffered in November 2020, which has hampered her ability to play guitar, Williams remains a vital artist. Beyond the book, her 16th album, Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart, was released on June 30. The 10 potent new original songs, which mostly touch on a common music theme, include guest appearances by Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen, Margo Price, Angel Olsen, and Tommy Stinson.
When asked whether her work on the book manifested itself in any of the new material, Williams responds, “I’m not sure, really. A lot of stuff isn’t happening consciously. Anytime you’re writing subconscious things come out. You don’t necessarily sit down and know what you’re going to write from the moment you sit down with paper and pen. So I’m sure there were many times when one thing informed the other at different points, but it wasn’t something I was looking to do necessarily.”
Williams’ musical voicings and written words will soon further intersect. As she notes, “What we’re talking about doing is recording a CD of the specific songs that are mentioned in the book, so people can listen to the songs as they’re reading the book. That’s kind of the idea. It’s all coming together in an organic process.”
As an active reader yourself, was there a particular memoir that you found instructive or inspiring as you began work on your own book?
I read everything I could get my hands on. There seemed to be this huge influx of memoirs coming in from different musicians, close to the same time. I don’t know what that was about, but all of a sudden, everybody was writing a memoir.
I really loved Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender. I was impressed with her writing. I already knew she wrote great songs, but the book is well-written. She describes the cultural atmosphere—things that were going on at the time in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She writes about the different artists she was into back then, what their music meant to her and how excited she was when she’d sometimes meet them.
It’s very colorful. There are also some naughty moments, and you want to have a little bit of that in there. It’s a rock-and-roll memoir after all. [Laughs.] She talks about hanging out with Iggy Pop, and her visuals are just great. I loved reading the book. I thought it was brilliant.
What she writes about being with Iggy Pop in her hotel room is pretty raunchy, but it’s hilarious. He was a nasty, bad boy. She starts it by saying she woke up after a night of drunkenness and somebody was in bed with her. She didn’t know who it was until she turned and looked. It was Iggy and somehow they had ended up there together. That’s how wild and crazy the night before had been. Then she goes on to describe what happens and a part of me thought it was sexist and disgusting. At the same time, though, I also thought, “But it’s Iggy Pop and Chrissie Hynde. That’s what happens. That’s real life.”
I’ve gotten to be friends with her. We text each other and I kind of look to her as my older sister.
I didn’t feel comfortable going to the same extent she did as far as sexual details and things like that, but it worked for her and the book. I had to decide ahead of time how much of that I was going to have in there. I didn’t want it to be sugar-coated, but I also didn’t want to offend my aunts and uncles and certain people. So I tried to get that point across without rubbing it in people’s faces.
You mention how Chrissie Hynde captures the cultural atmosphere. That’s also true of your book. Were you consciously exploring the historical context from the get-go?
It all just kind of tumbled out that way as I was writing it. That’s the life I grew up in. It was fascinating and interesting, which is why I guess people were telling me I should write a book. [Laughs.]
I do remember that I was very conscientious about having descriptions of things in there to be able to paint a picture for people. I’m almost afraid to admit it, but sometimes, I would look for an article about something to help with the description of a place, like when I was trying to describe Folk City in New York City or my high school in New Orleans.
I read Neil Young’s book, and he actually used Wikipedia at times. He would say, “Thank you, Wikipedia.” He was admitting it.
Whenever I found an article somewhere that helped me in some way, I was careful to credit it.
In writing about New Orleans, you describe seeing Sweet Emma Barrett at Preservation Hall. It’s one of many personal observations that add a richness to the narrative.
My dad used to take us because he paid a lot of attention to blues and jazz. He collected albums and just loved that music. He wanted us to be exposed to it. So he would take us down to Preservation Hall quite often, about once a week even. We would sit in there, listen to the music and sweat. [Laughs.]
He loved Bessie Smith. Columbia was putting out a lot of really good stuff back then. I think they put out a two-album set of Bessie Smith’s music. My dad bought that and played it all the time at the house. Not everybody had a father like that but part of my life was going down to Preservation Hall and hearing Sweet Emma. It never occurred to me not to write about the city itself, the buildings and other artists like her. I’m in there too but I wanted it to be about more than that.
Unlike a song which can continue to evolve in the live setting after it appears on an album, when you’re writing a book, there are limited opportunities for revision. Was that a challenge for you or did you welcome that sort of resolution?
Frankly, there were times when I thought I was going to lose my mind while I was writing this book. I’d never done one before and it’s a whole different animal from writing songs. It’s completely different because of what you just said. With a song, you can go back to it, with the book, there was this big deadline.
I don’t have that as much with an album. It will come up to some extent on occasion, when it’s time to go to the studio to make another album and we’ve got to have songs written. Except with songs, I’m constantly writing. It’s not like, “OK, I’m going to write 15 songs.” They just kind of dribble out like water from a faucet over a period of time. Then I sit with them, fix them, do a lot of editing and cleaning up—that sort of tweaking with the songs.
But with the book, it was like, “OK, I’ve got to write a book about my life. How do I start, how do I do this? Where do I start?” I had to get in the mood. I’d need about a case of legal pads since I can’t type. That was an issue in and of itself—how am I going to do this if I can’t type? So I had to write the whole thing by hand. It was a very different undertaking.
I’d also get anxious and worry that I didn’t put enough of this in or that in or that I forgot to put something in. Then I couldn’t go back and put it in because the book would be going to press and it was too late. That was the stuff that driving me crazy.
Sometimes I wanted to go back and amend some things and do some more editing. I am a born editor. I can’t quit editing. How do you do that? How do you quit? I can’t. I’m afraid to read through my book now because I’ll find some things I’m going to want to edit and I can’t because it’s too late because the book’s out already.
There are a lot of similarities between making records and writing books, but there are also some differences that I had to get used to, and that’s one of them.
In the book, you mention that a scene from Charles Bukowski’s Women took place at your father’s house when he was hosting a party following a reading. I had trouble finding my copy of Women and when I went online to look for a new one, I noticed that all the covers of the classic Bukowski books that once were quite plain are now glitzy and glossy.
Oh, God. It sounds like Hollywood got ahold of them.
This led me to think about judging a book by its cover. When it comes to albums, how important is it to you that the tone of the image matches that of the music? Or can there be a totally different aesthetic independent of it?
I get almost panicky about it when it comes time to decide on the cover. It can’t be just anything. It has to be just the right thing— the right photograph, drawing, painting or whatever it is.
That’s really high up on the list for me. I find it interesting that you’ll see these album covers in which the photograph on the back will be better than the one on the front. I’ll wonder: “Why did they pick that one for the front cover?” That’s always where my mind goes. [Laughs.]
That’s why it’s important for the artist to stay involved all the way through. The artist is making the music and the cover should be designed the same way—with the same sense of creativity in mind.
Album covers sometimes frustrate me because they’re so bad. I always wonder if the artist was involved with these decisions about the album cover or whether he or she just let someone else make those decisions.
There are those vintage ‘60s and ‘70s album covers—well, now, they’re vintage—that are kind of campy and people can laugh at them. Some of those work because they’re really corny or it’s a “they’re so bad, they’re good” kind of thing. But that’s a different category.
Do you have a favorite of your own album covers, in the sense of pairing the image with the music?
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That one has an actual snapshot that my dad had taken. We used to go on these short road trips with my brother and sister. We’d pass by the cotton fields, he would stop the car and let us get out and look at the cotton. We were all mesmerized by it for some reason. It’s one of those memories that the album is all about.
Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart differs from your prior records in that you didn’t compose the songs on guitar. Do you think that impacted the nature of the songs themselves?
My one regret in life is that didn’t learn piano. I know instinctively that if you’re sitting down at a piano, you’re going to write differently than if you’re on guitar. That’s just the nature of the instrument.
Normally, I would go to my guitar right off the bat and start messing around to come up with a song and then put it down on voice record or something. Now, I have to think of melodies in my head and I can’t necessarily follow up the way I once did.
However, the huge difference with this record is that I started collaborating, doing some co-writing, which I never really enjoyed before. [On Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart, Williams worked with Jesse Malin, Travis Stephens and her husband Tom Overby]. But I realized that, if you find the right person or people, it can be a good thing. It can be actually kind of liberating in a way because everybody’s got different ideas and you have more ideas and lines flowing out.
So I opened myself up to it this time and I think we came up with some pretty good songs. I had started writing with my husband on my last record [Good Souls Better Angels], which was a huge difference for me. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work, but it turns out that he had been interested in creative writing for a long time and was actually good at it. I didn’t realize it until we started. I’d be working on a song and he would come up with these lines that he’d written.
He was kind of shy about it, a little reticent at first. He would say, “I’ve got these lines here. You don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, but I just thought I’d show them to you and see if you want to do anything with them.”
Then I would take them, although, at first, I was a little reticent, too. I’d think, “Uh-oh, here we go. What if I don’t like them?” But I’d look at them and they were good. So I’d either start a new song with them or I’d use them in something that I was already working on.
He’s also a really good sounding board. That’s how it kind of started. I would play something for him that I’d just written and he would give me feedback. So we developed a trust that way. Then it went from there to a more creative exercise.
One that’s on the album, “Where the Song Will Find Me,” was Tom’s idea and mostly written by him. The melodies were all written by me, but he started some of the lyrics then I tweaked them a little bit and came up with an arrangement and a melody. I really like that song. I think it’s an interesting concept.
Plenty of married couples who work independently of one another will be fascinated to learn that you were able to do that together.
I didn’t think it would work. I also didn’t think I would ever be in that position either. But I always had this kind of romantic notion of being part of a couple, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda—how they traveled together and hung out in the salons together. At least, I always assumed they did. That was my fantasy image of them. I thought there were couples like that in the artistic world—someone you could be with and feel creatively free.
You hear about artists like Anaïs Nin, who are in these relationships that seem to be so inspiring and overwhelmingly creative—all of that inspires their creativity and becomes their muse.
That’s what “Where the Song Will Find Me” is about. It’s about being open, which is kind of a spiritual thing. It’s about being open to the muse or the creativity—being open to letting it come in and enter you.
At the risk of sounding all woo-woo, I’ve sometimes felt that I’m a vehicle, and the song is just flowing through me. It sounds terribly hippie woo-woo, but I’ve heard other artists talk about that same thing.
I should also point out that my favorite thing to do in the world is just hang out with interesting, fun, intelligent people in a bar and drink red wine. I would’ve probably been a mess back in the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda days. I would’ve been one of those people like Dylan Thomas in the bar drinking too much and proselytizing. [Laughs.]
Your songwriting has enthralled such a wide range of artists over the years. Is there a particular cover of your music that has resonated with you for one reason or another?
There have been a couple interpretations of my songs that I was really impressed with. That doesn’t happen all the time. They’re not always inspiring or they don’t always make you feel good about them.
I love what Emmylou Harris did with my song “Sweet Old World.” She covered that song on an album that Daniel Lanois produced [Wrecking Ball]. I also love what Mary Chapin Carpenter did with “Passionate Kisses.” It’s completely different, but that’s her style. She also opened a huge door for me when she recorded that.
There’s a story behind that, too. When that album came out [Come On Come On], the business people didn’t want her to release it as a single. They said, “We don’t think that’s a good idea because it’s not a country song.” This is because of the way they were marketing her, which was kind of convoluted to begin with because her style wasn’t obviously country. She didn’t agree with them and she stood her ground because she had been performing it in her shows and her fans loved it. So she was real headstrong and they put it out as a single. That’s when it won a Grammy for Country Song of the Year.
In your book, you write that for two decades, you were told your music was “too country for rock and too rock for country.” How do you think those perceptions have changed? Have they altered the way people conceptualize music?
I think the listeners have always been able to conceptualize things. I don’t think that was ever a problem in terms of people listening. I’ve always thought it really was a marketing issue. The record labels were confused about it. They have to know how to market everything. It’s just like any business. So if something comes along that doesn’t easily fit a niche, they don’t know what to do with it.
It all really starts with radio. They have all these tight sections where they put everything and the record companies follow suit. So when they sign a new artist, it’s easier for them if it’s somebody who obviously falls into one of those categories. Occasionally, there’ll be somebody like myself who falls in the cracks and then they get nervous because they don’t see a market for it. It’s got to be called something.
Eventually, that’s how Americana came about because none of the business people knew what to do with music like mine, that wasn’t all the way rock and wasn’t all the way country. They used to call it folk-rock back in the day.
They had to come up with something, so they came up with Americana. Then they were able to put all these artists into that little slot, where before they didn’t know what to do with them. It’s the music business. The key word being business.
Even though you suggest that’s a mixed bag, a number of artists are appreciative that you were able to open things up for them. Somewhat along these lines, you describe your discovery of Highway 61 Revisited at age 12 shortly after you learned to play guitar. You say of Dylan: “He was my mentor, my musical soulmate. Of course, he wasn’t aware of any of this, but that didn’t matter.” Plenty of people regard you and your music in a similar light. How do you take that?
It blows my mind. It’s very humbling and all of that. But I forget that because I’m in it. So I don’t have that perspective unless someone comes up to me and tells me that. But it’s wonderful when that happens.
Usually what I get are comments from younger female artists. I got a text from somebody the other day and she said that my music was the background of her life. I’ll get these really weighty comments like that.
It’s wonderful. It’s very sweet, flattering and humbling— I don’t know what other words to use. So I just nod, smile and say, “Thank you.”