Credit: Courtesy

One anecdote in Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You captures the essence of Lucinda Williams, the acclaimed American singer-songwriter. In 1993, Williams won a Grammy award for her song “Passionate Kisses,” but although she appreciated the recognition and was gratified that her music had reached a wider audience, the prospect of attending the award ceremony in New York City filled her with such anxiety and terror that she didn’t go. 

“The truth is,” Williams writes, with the candor found throughout her memoir, “that I was not just self-conscious but also scared. I feared that I didn’t belong.” Williams was 41 years old at the time. Now in her early seventies, recognized as an icon of rock, folk, and country music, this fear doesn’t arise as regularly as it once did. 

Self-aggrandizement isn’t what Lucinda Williams is about, as a woman or an artist. The power of her songwriting and singing lies in its emotional rawness and her willingness to confront a range of feelings, from love, loss, and lust to anger and pain. There’s also a sense of humility in her songs, a recognition that life carries no guarantees of happiness. She learned this firsthand, primarily from her father, the academic and poet Miller Williams, but also from the blues and folk music she listened to. For most of Lucinda’s childhood and adolescence, her father was an academic gypsy, chasing jobs and tenure from Mississippi to Santiago, Chile. The family moved constantly. As if a peripatetic upbringing wasn’t unsettling enough, Williams’s mother suffered from mental illness and drug and alcohol problems. Lucinda experienced things that leave imprints on a child, and even now she’s reconciling her own trauma. 

Because Williams charted her own musical path and resisted compromising her artistic vision and aesthetic, it took a long time for her to break through; she also resisted being pigeonholed by the music industry. For nearly two decades, Williams was stuck in a netherland between rock and country. While music industry bigwigs puzzled over where Williams fit, the musicians she played and toured with knew, from the very beginning, that she possessed a unique and rare talent. 

During that 20-year period, Williams worked in bookstores, supermarkets, and health food stores to pay the bills. She relocated frequently, from Austin to L.A. to Nashville and back to L.A. She was in and out of relationships and a marriage, drawn to a series of biker-outlaw-poet types. She writes, “Many women will give themselves over to men and completely lose any sense of who they are as individuals. I did that time after time.” She never had any interest in having children. Life on the road, on the tour bus, always in motion, appealed to her. 

Success, fame, and industry recognition came late for Lucinda Williams, which doesn’t seem to bother her all that much. With 17 Grammy Award nominations and three wins, plus a host of other nominations and awards, a solid marriage, friendships spanning decades, and the peace of mind that comes from facing oneself with honesty, Lucinda Williams no longer needs to fear that she doesn’t belong. 

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.


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