Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir
“Long may she rock.”
In her candid and engrossing memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, the singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams writes that she has “held back from talking about my childhood over the decades of my life—I’ve written songs about it instead—because I came to think of it as normal.”
Her early years were anything but normal. Williams was born in 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her mother, Lucille Fern Day, was mentally ill, an alcoholic, and addicted to pills; when Lucinda was three years old, Lucille locked her in a closet. Mental illness made her mother “so unpredictable: Anything could happen, beautiful or horrible, at any given moment.” Her father, Miller Williams, was a poet and “struggling itinerant professor” who, following academic employment opportunities, moved the family 12 times before Lucinda was 18.
But her turbulent and peripatetic life with her “dysfunctional, fucked up family” had its upside: Miller instilled a love of writing in his daughter, and Lucille played piano and introduced Lucinda to some of her favorite artists—Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Errol Garner, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen. Both parents also were liberals who chafed against the racism and conservatism of their environment. Their politics influenced Lucinda, who “got kicked out of high school twice for participating in demonstrations.”
As a fledgling teenage musician, she “learned all the protest songs,” by Bob Dylan (“my mentor, my musical soulmate”) and other writers. But Williams has never been a topical songwriter—the closest she’s come to writing a musical broadside was “Man Without a Soul,” which excoriates Donald Trump without mentioning his name. Her songs are “about my feelings and the world’s feelings.”
And what songs they are. Williams dislikes the term “Americana,” but her music seamlessly blends the styles that comprise that catchall genre label: blues, country, folk, and rock ’n’ roll. Many have the narrative concision of country music and the erotic candor and truth-telling of the blues, which “tells you to embrace all of life.”
In Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You—the title comes from “Metal Firecracker,” a track on her superb 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—she explains where the songs came from, when and where she wrote them, and who inspired them (she names names). They often tell of troubled relationships with a type of man she describes as “a poet on a motorcycle,” men who “could think very deeply and could have very deep feelings, but there was also a kind of blue-collar roughneck quality to them.”
These guys turn up in songs like “Lake Charles,” “Metal Firecracker,” and “Joy.” One was physically abusive. He sold paintings from Williams’ collection of folk art to buy heroin and flew into a violent rage when she confronted him about it. That experience informed “Wakin’ Up” (from her 2020 album Good Souls Better Angels), a song so brutally honest that another artist cautioned her about releasing it.
Other songs were inspired by her childhood (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”), her mother’s family (“Bus to Baton Rouge”), the murder of a musician friend, the Texas songwriter Blaze Foley (“Drunken Angel”), and an “unconsummated crush” on the guitarist Bo Ramsey (“Right in Time”). Sometimes, a song’s protagonist will be a character mixed with a bit of Lucinda, like Sylvia, the waitress in “The Night’s Too Long,” who wants a guy who “wears a leather jacket and likes his livin' rough.”
Although Williams early on acquired a passionate cult following—sometimes too passionate, like the woman who openly masturbated while the singer was on stage—she didn’t break through commercially until Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which won her a Grammy and remains her bestselling album. Other singers had hits with her songs—Mary Chapin Carpenter with “Passionate Kisses,” Emmylou Harris with “Sweet Old World”—but she met rejection from record company and radio executives who thought her music was too country for rock, too rock for country. Car Wheels, which she made when she was in her mid-forties, changed all that.
Making that career milestone, however, was a drawn-out, conflict-ridden drama. Williams clashed with her guitarist, Gurf Morlix, who left the recording studio and the band. After Morlix’s departure, she re-recorded the album with a production team of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, engineer Ray Kennedy, and Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Earle became so frustrated by what he saw as Williams’ excessive perfectionism that he threatened to leave.
At one point, Williams “ended up bursting into tears and lying in the fetal position in my vocal booth.” She acknowledges that she can bring “unpredictable emotion” to recording, but she had “a vision” that she was “committed to executing properly.” A New York Times article depicted her as “a control-obsessed lunatic,” and she writes that “the label of obsessive perfectionist has haunted me ever since.” Still, the proof is in the pudding, and the album’s excellence and the critical acclaim it received, bear out Williams’ stubborn commitment to making the record she envisioned.
Williams went on to record a string of brilliant albums, the most recent ones co-produced by Tom Overby, who also is her husband and manager. With her terrific band, Buick 6, she took on a touring schedule that bears comparison to the “never-ending tour” of her hero and fellow road dog Bob Dylan. That all came to a halt in late 2020 when she suffered a stroke that affected her mobility and took away her ability to play guitar. This life-changing event never appears in Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, a puzzling omission. But Lucinda Williams, indomitable as ever, recovered sufficiently to return to recording and touring. In June 2023, she’ll release a new album, Stories From a Rock ’n Roll Heart. Long may she rock.