Lucinda Williams’ Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You (book review)

I can’t believe that singer Lucinda Williams is 70 years old! Thankfully, she is showing no signs of slowing down, and she’s just released her memoirs. Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You (2023, Crown Publishing) has just been released and it’s as introspective and haunting as her music.

“Too country for rock and roll, and too rock and roll for country,” this would be a reoccurring complaint through her early career. That was one reason Williams was a late bloomer to success: there was no niche for she, so over time she created it. Frequently pegged as country, her music has some of those elements, but she’s more gritty than what passes for country today. She writes that she hates the alternative-country label, and prefers no label at all. If you listen closely you hear classic country and folk, with a dash of post-punk. That’s what I hear.

In 1988, at age 35, she finally had a record and label that stood behind her. No more part time jobs and scrounging gigs at bars to pay the rent. The road to get there, and the road ahead, are quite interesting stories.

Williams grew up in various places in the South in the 1950s. She moved 12 times in her first eighteen years.

“I’ve always been comfortable on the road, moving around to keep my career going. It’s in my blood. I feel at home on buses and in hotels and then standing in front of people, almost like a traveling preacher, and expressing what I believe the most, what I care about the most, which is my music.”

“And much of my music is about my life, so it’s like a story that keeps being lived and told, written and sung.”

Her mother battled her mental illness with alcohol, a restless spirit who gave Williams her love of music. Her father called her a fighter, her first battle was spina bifida. He also told her that people carry their roots forward, which is obvious if you are familiar with her confessional folksy, bluesy, country-rock mashup of rootsy songs.

Her grandfathers were ministers, one very progressive, the other extremely conservative. Her paternal grandfather preached for women’s rights and against Jim Crow laws and segregation – not a very popular thing to do in the South. Her father was a professor and poet. Her mother a stay at home mom (the 1950s) and piano player. Money was tight, and the friction in the home intense. Her parents divorced as her mother’s mental health spiraled, she was in and out of hospitals.

To understand Williams and her great body of work, is to connect the dots of the influences in her early life. Religion, Southern culture, the music, the literary drive of her father, the thrill she felt from school plays, living briefly in Chile and Mexico. The experience of Latin music, along with the brutal political unrest burned deeply in Williams’ young soul. All of these these things shaped Williams’ future artist expression.

Williams has built a fine career, and reading her book I have even greater respect for her. She didn’t break into the “big time” until her forties, with a style, while artistically unique, was difficult to turn into big record sale. She also navigated the male world of the music industry – musicians, record producers and executives, venues, publicists and so on. Even as a successful artist, it wasn’t easy as a woman, particularly a woman over 40.

I own a few of her albums and have digital copies of a few others. It is true that her music it difficult to categorize, and maybe that’s only relevant when one might be trying to describe her to others. She writes story songs, often about her own life. She can reach back into her memories to paint something as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Williams has a voice that is rich in character and experience. As a young musician, she idolized Joan Baez, but sang closer to Bob Dylan. That’s not a criticism, but Baez has a heavenly voice, and Dylan is cut from the legacy of the greatest folk stylists. To convey the earnestness and earthiness of Dylan is a high compliment.

Lucinda Williams fits into the songwriting class of John Hiatt, Tom Petty, Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello. That’s a talented level of songwriting skill.

“From age 12 to seventy I’ve been pretty much doing the same thing (playing the guitar and learning songs), and I love it. It’s the world I wanted to be in, a better world than the one I was in.”

I consider these albums among her best:

The Ghosts of Highway 20 (2016) Another two-disc set of original material. Williams really hit her stride in her 60s.

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014) Williams unveils a two-disc set of new material on her own label. She’s stretching here, not all gems, but truly earnest efforts.

Blessed (2011) Williams enlisted production help from Don Was for this set. A smoky, soulful set. The guitar work in particular is crisp and haunting.

West (2007) Another confessional set of gems.

Live @ the Fillmore (2005) Williams really shines on the stage and this album conveys the energy and angst of her studio work.

World Without Tears (2003) Early 1970s rock and roll, reminiscent of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night or the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street. My favorite song here is American Dream, which is almost a rap.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) Not her first album, but the recording that introduced her to a wider audience. Soulful and aching songs.

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