Early in Lucinda Williams’s memoir, she recalls waiting outside Flannery O’Connor’s house, in Milledgeville, Georgia. It was 1960 and Lucinda was eight; her father, Miller, was a fledgling poet and an itinerant professor. Miss O’Connor was unable to receive her guests because she was busy writing. “You can wait on the porch,” said the housekeeper. Eventually, Daddy got to meet with Miss O’Connor, and Lucinda stayed outside and chased Miss O’Connor’s peacocks.
Lucinda would read O’Connor later, at 16, and even later realized it would be a long time until the world waited on her too. Her father was a gypsy scholar for years, preparing Lucinda for a life on the road: Iowa; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Santiago, Chile—an exhausting itinerary for a civilian, but a Baedeker for a troubadour.
Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You opens with little Lucinda making gin-and-tonics for her parents. When Miller Williams turned the University of Arkansas into a major creative-writing hub, writers and their drinks would be in and out of the house often. (One of them was Charles Bukowski, who wrote about a party there in his novel Women. Lucinda tried to track him down later, at age 31, when she lived in Los Angeles. “Well, honey,” said her father, “you know that he’ll probably try to screw you.”)
Her father was a social drinker. Her mother was a mental-illness drinker. She once locked Lucinda in the closet when she was three, but her father told her that her mother was not well when she did such things. Years later, after adult Lucinda performed a show, someone asked her, “Did you have a rough childhood?” Those songs don’t come out of easy living. Some wounds never heal. And if you are a Lucinda-caliber songwriter, you can spend the rest of your life working it out.
When she first heard Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, at 12, she thought, I want to do that. Her language would never be as enigmatic or flamboyant as those lyrics, but it would get right to the point, go straight for the heart. The songs weren’t there to impress you. They were there to reach you.
Throughout the book, she tells you who the songs were about—guys who committed suicide, guys who did her wrong, guys who gave her a little pleasure and a lot of pain—but, really, they’re about you. She wrote songs about desire, about flirtation, about bad behavior that felt so good. In “Pineola,” about the suicide of poet Frank Stanford, she observes, reports, and tells us how she survived, as real as a police blotter. Stanford, whom she loved, died in 1978, right before she got her first record contract, at age 25.
Those songs don’t come out of easy living. And if you are a Lucinda-caliber songwriter, you can spend the rest of your life working it out.
Lucinda’s 20s and 30s would be spent alternating retail jobs with folk gigs, sometimes competing with a TV blaring a football game at the bar. She worked at a supermarket by day, played gigs by night, and tried to get the music-industry men to get it. “I was back working at a record store and selling sausages in supermarkets,” she writes. “All the decision-making people in the music industry were men. So come to think of it, I was pitching sausages on two different levels.” Labels would love her songs but complain that she was too country for rock and too rock for country.
Eventually, Mary Chapin Carpenter would cover “Passionate Kisses”—and win a Grammy for it—and even though record-label people would complain that “Changed the Locks” needed a bridge, Tom Petty appreciated it as it was and covered it.
Lucinda, so fearless when she clawed her way in, could also be vulnerable. When “Passionate Kisses” won that Grammy, and Rosanne Cash set her up with a fashion consultant, she decided to skip the ceremony. When Cash was asked why, she just said that Lucinda got self-conscious in front of certain kinds of people.
The years would go by, the men would come and go, and the masterpieces would proliferate. She liked the bad boys in leather jackets. Female musicians often say that they don’t date other musicians, and this book is evidence for why, although the songs are pearls beyond price.
The title of this book comes from her song “Metal Firecracker,” about a guy named Roly. His breakup line was “I love you but this relationship doesn’t fit into my agenda right now.”
“I learned later that he was involved with a lot of women at the same time he was with me, some of them famous musicians,” Lucinda writes, adding, “I won’t name names.”
You know her stock started going up when she was recording her breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Paul Schrader—screenwriter of Taxi Driver—wants to make a video with her, Rick Rubin signs her, and one of the bad guys she gets mixed up with is Ryan Adams—more than 20 years younger—who freaks out when she bites his lip while they’re making out. She does a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz while she is hungover, but Leibovitz knows how to deal with it; she has seen much worse.
“I was selling sausages in supermarkets. All the decision-making people in the music industry were men.... I was pitching sausages on two different levels.”
The bigger Lucinda gets, the weirder it gets. A female fan has to be removed from a show because she is publicly masturbating. Eventually, Lucinda meets Tom Overby, not a musician, not a celebrity, not a turbulent poet, not an addict. Overby becomes her manager, her soulmate, and, after an onstage ceremony in front of a concert audience, her husband.
But the past is not done with Lucinda. It is a pile of secrets that could never be fully unearthed. Her father would eventually die of Alzheimer’s, but before the illness, he realized, after reading the poetry of her lyrics very carefully, that the child crying in the back seat in “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was her. Now he was in tears. She let him know it had all worked out in the end.
The book has a postscript—she advises readers to read Sexton and Plath and Ferlinghetti and Bukowski, to listen to Nick Drake and Miles Davis and Lou Reed. To go to the desert, ride on a Ferris wheel, protest a war, dance.
You could follow all her instructions and never become Lucinda Williams. That’s a miracle that could happen only once.
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here