“Music was my therapy for the many traumas I suffered as a child,” Lucinda Williams writes in her new memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. Those traumas include her mother’s mental illness, which created a volatile and often unpredictable environment for Williams and her two siblings, the eventual divorce of her parents, and her own battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and self-esteem issues. Peppered with flirtatious encounters, doomed relationships with “poets on motorcycles” (including Ryan Adams), and a same-sex kiss on a dance floor, the memoir is also a loving tribute to the musical gifts her parents, partners, and friends bestowed on her, from folk singing in her youth to recording a series of critically lauded albums steeped in folk, blues, country, and rock.
The pinnacle of Williams’ career was the landmark 1998 LP Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which earned the singer-songwriter two Grammys and helped usher in the alt-country/Americana music movement — although she bristles at those limiting terms. In its 250 pages, however, Williams’ book confirms that limits have not exactly been a hindrance. Ahead of Tuesday’s release of Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, we ignore that advice and share a few of the book’s most raw and poignant memories and revelations.
Lucinda was born two weeks after Hank Williams died.
Born January 26, 1953, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to scientist, poet, and educator Stanley Miller Williams and Lucille (Lucy) Fern Day Williams, Lucinda arrived just 25 days after the death of country legend Hank Williams. Although the two performers were not related, both of them were, coincidentally, born with forms of spina bifida, a birth defect caused by an incomplete closing of the spine and membranes around the spinal column. When she was around one, Lucinda’s windpipe became blocked, requiring an emergency tracheotomy.
She was all but nomadic.
Because of her father’s work, from the time Lucinda was born until she was 18, her family (which also included siblings Karyn and Robert) lived in 12 different places throughout the Deep South, as well as Utah, Chile, and Mexico City. Later Lucinda would live in Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, and, currently, Nashville.
Lucinda’s godfather was the brother of Roots author Alex Haley.
One of Lucinda’s father’s closest friends, whom he met as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, was George Haley, the brother of Roots author Alex Haley. The two friends were often tormented by students disapproving of their friendship and had bags of urine thrown at them, among other indignities. After Lucinda was born, Miller Williams asked George Haley to be Lucinda’s godfather. In March 1963, a story penned by Alex Haley about the early friendship of his brother and Miller Williams was published in Reader’s Digest.
Her first onstage performance was in Annie Get Your Gun.
While living in Macon, Georgia, at around five years old, Lucinda was entranced by Blind Pearly Brown, a blind preacher and street singer she and her father encountered performing downtown. When she began practicing guitar, many of the songs she heard Brown singing were among those she first learned to play. But Lucinda’s first onstage performance came in a local production of Annie Get Your Gun in Baton Rouge. “I was hooked,” she writes.
Lucinda was kicked out of school for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
While attending high school in New Orleans, Lucinda was sent home twice for participating in demonstrations. The first stemmed from a protest against racial inequality in the treatment of Black and white students who were caught fighting — only the Black students were sent home. That was followed by her refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which resulted in an indefinite suspension. Rather than return, Lucinda was home-schooled.
As “Cindy Williams,” she played folk music throughout Mexico.
During her family’s time in Mexico City, Lucinda and Clark Jones, a family friend and musician from New Orleans, were invited by the American embassy to perform traditional and modern folk songs at a series of concerts throughout Mexico. Her first live shows ever, mostly at colleges and high schools, the performances were publicized as “Folk Music from Spiritual to Protest with Clark Jones and Cindy Williams.”
A pot bust came back to haunt her 40 years later at the Canadian border.
In 1972, Lucinda relocated to Nashville after auditioning (unsuccessfully) to be a performer at the now-defunct theme park, Opryland USA. During a pot bust at the Acklen Ave. house, near fabled Music Row, where she was living with fellow musicians, Lucinda was arrested and spent the night in jail with Skinny Dennis Sanchez. Among the musicians who helped raise bail for them was Rodney Crowell. In 2012, Lucinda was nearly denied entrance into Canada, a country she’d performed in several times already, when the bust showed up on her record.
Lucinda once met her idol Bob Dylan, who kissed her.
During her time in New York City, Williams befriended Mike Porco, the owner of the club Gerde’s Folk City, who introduced her to one of her heroes: Bob Dylan. “I extended my hand, not half thinking at first, and then I realized what was happening and I froze,” she writes, adding that “the kinetic energy was palpable.” When they parted, Dylan gave her a gentle kiss on the side of her face. Two decades later, she would open a series of shows on a tour Dylan did with Van Morrison.
One of her songs ended up in a porno.
Thanks to a contract that prevented her from controlling the use of her recordings, Lucinda’s song “One Night Stand” appeared in All American Girls in Heat: Part Two — a porno. Lucinda eventually watched the film, remarking in the book that its young female star has a scene with two cowboys outside a gas station during which she utters a single line: “You boys got anything I can fill up with?”
Imposter syndrome caused her to bail on the Grammys.
When Lucinda was nominated for the Best Country Song Grammy in 1994 for “Passionate Kisses,” she was terrified at the prospect of attending the awards show. In preparation for the event, Rosanne Cash had told her about a New York clothing shop where she could get the perfect outfit. But with a flight booked and a fitting arranged, she backed out at the last minute and didn’t attend the Grammys. “I feared that I didn’t belong,” she writes. “It’s a feeling I’ve been trying to shake my entire life.”
The Car Wheels on a Gravel Road standout “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” was born during a hangover.
Lucinda began writing “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” one morning in Knoxville, Tennessee — “hungover as fuck.” The night before, she and a group of friends had gone to a club to watch country-punk band the Dirtclods, which included her then-boyfriend. The next day, he confronted her about her behavior on the dance floor, which included making out with a female stranger in full view of the band and other bar patrons. Having already achieved some celebrity at the time, she wonders now if the woman she kissed “knew who she was, or if she just wanted to kiss me.”
Lucinda bit Ryan Adams — twice.
Near the end of the Nineties, as “Nashville was turning into a party scene,” Lucinda met Ryan Adams when he was performing at local club 12th & Porter. Although her drink of choice was beer with tequila shots, she writes that the musician, 21 years her junior, turned her onto vodka tonics. “That was the beginning of the end,” she says. Noting that what went on between them was only a flirtation and not a real love affair, it all ended after she twice bit his lip during a make-out session. After the second bite, he chastised her, she said “Sorry,” and he got up and walked away. Several months later she saw him again and was determined to get him to apologize for deserting her. “It was like pulling teeth trying to get him to admit that he fucked up. But he finally did.”