Sharing her secrets.
Given what an outstanding songwriter Lucinda Williams is, it should come as no great surprise to discover that she writes good prose as well, and this memoir has much of the sparse, dry storytelling she brings to her best songs. “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You” is Lucinda Williams’ own story of her life and her lifelong passion for music, along with her immersion into the worlds of poetry, through her father’s influence, and southern gothic, through her own experiences.
This is a fascinating book and a great read. Even if you didn’t know about her music this would still be a very readable book because, essentially, it’s about a woman succeeding in a male-dominated world in her own way and on her own terms. Frequently dismissed as “too rock ‘n’ roll for country and too country for rock ‘n’ roll”, Williams has always ploughed her own furrow and refused to be forced into categories by record labels, something that has earned her a great deal of respect in the music business. As she acknowledges, she is that oddity in a business focused on youth, a late bloomer. Her belief in herself meant she always knew it was just a matter of time before the world woke up to her talent. It might have taken a little longer than she wanted but the end result was, as far as she was concerned, never in doubt.
Reading this book you immediately get a feel for the bohemian lifestyle she lived growing up. Her father was a poet and an academic who didn’t get tenure until relatively late in his career. As a result, the family moved frequently and Williams had lived in 12 different cities by the time she was 18. Her childhood was also severely affected by her mother’s battle with mental illness and that was obviously a lot for her to handle, especially when her parents separated and then a stepmother comes on the scene. Her father was given to throwing regular house parties and she grew up listening to poetry readings and hearing works of literature being discussed at length, often after large amounts of alcohol had been consumed, “There was a steady flow of interesting guests at my father and stepmother’s house. I liked that environment, and after I left home and was out on my own, I came to miss it, terribly. I tried to recreate it myself but I was never able to repeat it, not even with all the musicians I knew. I missed the literary world, the heady talks, the cocktails, the humor, the warmth, the savvy qualities, and the beauty.” This was normal life for the young Lucinda Williams and, while it fostered her sense of independence and informed her writing, it also clearly affected her own ability to settle and created in her something of a gypsy soul. Williams lays it all out in her matter of fact way but you can tell it all had an effect on her and she’s very honest about her feelings for her family. While she clearly had a close relationship with her father and shared a love of the written word with him and, it would seem, always got on well with her stepmother (Mama Jordan), it’s the connection to her own mother that seems the most strong, despite all the difficulties of growing up with her mother’s increasingly serious mental health issues.
Unsurprisingly, given so many of them have found their way into her songs, she’s also very open and honest about her personal relationships. She confesses to a weakness for what she calls the “poet on a motorbike” type, the bad boy with a lyrical soul, though I think those that know her music well already suspected that. This book provides a number of references to the men in her life and the songs they inspired.
Above everything else, what you really get in this book is as much of an insight into Williams as a songwriter as she herself is able to give. “When I’m writing a song, I let my head go where it wants to go. Much of the process is stream of consciousness. I don’t want to say I don’t know how it happens, but it’s almost impossible to put into words my process for writing songs. I don’t always know where they are going. I put a tremendous amount of rigor into my work and then I let instinct make the decisions.” Interestingly, she also lets on that she doesn’t keep notebooks, like a lot of writers, but that she has a briefcase that goes everywhere with her and which contains references and notes that she can use at any time. “So something that might have gone into one song can end up in another song. Little snippets of things mix together in what becomes a song. I still carry this briefcase with me everywhere I go”.
What is particularly enjoyable about this book is the way that Williams has opened up about her past and what it took to get her to where she is now. Dismissed by many as a “cute folk singer” in her early days on the road, she has so far racked up no less than seventeen Grammy Award nominations and has won the award three times, along with a host of other awards and accolades, not least of which was Time magazine naming her ‘America’s Best Songwriter’, yet she worked at record and health food stores well into her thirties to pay her bills, while she continued to pursue her belief in her talent as a songwriter and performer.
Lucinda Williams is, without doubt, one of the premier artists to emerge on the American music scene in the last 40 years and a firm favourite here at Americana UK. Reading this memoir you get some idea of how lucky we are that she remained focused on her music despite all the setbacks she suffered. She may have been a late bloomer but she has been determined to make up for any lost time and 2023’s ‘Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart’ will be her fifteenth solo studio recording. This book is exciting, inspirational and motivational; the story of someone who, when it came to her music, simply refused to take “No” as an answer. We’re lucky to have her.