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Lucinda Williams, 70, on Making Music After a Stroke, Her New Memoir

The rock/country artist opens up in an interview about her book ‘Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You’

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Crown / Danny Clinch

Fans of Lucinda Williams tend to feel like they really know her, in part because her songs seem so autobiographical. They speak of, among other things, an unsettled childhood (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” from her breakthrough 1998 album of the same name), heartache and loss (“Pineola”) and erotic passion (“Essence”) — all voiced in her distinctive raspy, bluesy Southern twang.

Williams, 70, has written a memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You (April 25), in which she offers stories from her life and the inspiration behind those evocative songs. There’s pain there: She was raised with two younger siblings by a musically gifted but volatile mother who struggled with mental illness and a poet father who moved his family to 12 different towns by the time Williams turned 18; she struggled to kick off her music career; and, for many years, she led a roller-coaster romantic life (she always fell for “poet-on-a-motorcycle-type guys,” as she puts it).

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We talked to Williams about her book, career and upcoming album, Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart, set for a June 30 release and produced with her husband and manager, Tom Overby. The album — which includes vocals from guest artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Margo Price — was created in the aftermath of her 2020 stroke, which required extensive rehab.

The lingering pain and stiffness in her hand continues to make it too difficult for her to play the guitar. But “the recovery is going well,” she said by phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was getting ready to set off on her music and book tours. “I'm pretty resilient.”

Here’s more from our talk with Williams.

Was it hard to go back to your past — including your childhood, some of which was tough — to write the book?

No, that wasn’t hard for me because that’s how I am anyway. When you listen to my songs — some of them are kind of gritty and they’re honest. So I’m used to that part. But writing it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. I’ve never written a book before. Initially, it was my husband, Tom [Overby], just asking me questions, and I started talking. Once you do that, it’s kind of like lifting the lid off.

What do you want people to understand about your life after reading the book?

That everything’s not dark all the time. A lot of my songs are dark and sad. I have songs about suicide and people dying and a lot of songs about loss, but I feel like there’s some kind of redemption at the end. And even though I was writing about some difficult things, and you could say my family was dysfunctional and screwed up, at the end of the day, I hope you could still tell that there was love there. 

You lived in so many towns as a kid and refer to yourself in the book as a “nomad.” Is there anywhere that feels like home to you?

I always wanted to have like a hometown like most people do, but I feel like I have two or three of them. Like one would be Fayetteville, Arkansas. That’s where I went to college and where I spent the majority of time. There’s also New Orleans, where I went to high school and met some of my close friends. That was a big place for me when I was growing up. It’s like that line in the Neil Young song, when he talks about Ontario, Canada, and he says, “All my changes were there.” That’s how I feel about New Orleans. All my changes were there.

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You’ve said you don’t like when your music is described as Americana, that it’s a kind of hollow marketing term.

I had a hard time getting a record deal to begin with, because the record companies didn’t know what to do with me. Like, “OK, how do we market this? What is it?” My music fell in the cracks between country and rock, which is exactly where Americana is. So it’s a lot easier to say Americana rather than get into a lengthy description about how there are a lot of influences: folk and blues and country and rock. But I like to say it’s Southern music.

Who are your own favorite singers/songwriters?

Sharon Van Etten is just wonderful. I think she’s a brilliant writer. And I have some artists I’ve been listening to for years and years who I still love. There’s Nick Drake and Steve Earle — I love his songwriting. And Bob Dylan, of course. I still love him.

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You had a stroke in 2020. How is the recovery going?

It’s going well. I mean, it takes a hell of a long time, but I’m pretty resilient. The main thing is that I have stiffness and pain in my hand, so I haven’t been able to play the guitar like I did before. I have these hand exercises that I do, because I still have that hope, deep down inside, that I’m going to be able to play guitar again.

When I perform, I usually tell the audience why I’m not playing guitar, and they all applaud. My fans are just the best. They’ve always been very supportive and understanding and patient. But it’s affected my songwriting, obviously, so that’s a big drag.

Did it change the way you wrote the new album?

Yes, because normally I sing and play the guitar; I set the pace, and the band follows me. Now I have to just show them, and it just doesn’t go as smoothly as it would if I was able to play. But I’ve been collaborating with my husband, Tom, and a friend of ours, Travis Stephens, who plays the guitar. We came up with some good songs.

What keeps you going when you might otherwise get discouraged?

The music helps tremendously. It’s very healing. It helps psychologically, which helps physically. It’s all connected.

How do you feel about growing older?

I love it. I just turned 70 and felt like actually shouting it to the world, “I'm 70!” Just because I just felt so excited about it. I still felt really good, and it felt like a positive thing to me. And I love saying that I’m 70 to people. They usually look shocked. “Oh, you don’t look at it all!” So I end up getting a compliment out of it.​​

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