Lucinda Williams is a survivor. What else do you call someone who survives a debilitating stroke at the age of 67 and rather than give in, rallies back following a week spent in intensive care in late November 2020 after a blood clot on the right side of her brain impaired the left side of her body’s motor skills? From there, the Louisiana native endured long rehabilitative stints that forced her to relearn many basic activities like walking.
Three years later, Williams is out touring behind her new album “Stories From a Rock and Roll Heart” in addition to promoting her warts-and-all memoir “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You.”
She will play at the Michigan Theater on Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
At a recent show at Manhattan’s City Winery, Williams was strong of voice despite still having a tentative gait when moving around the stage. But what was still readily apparent was her role as a storyteller willing to set the stage for musical narratives populated by the numerous “beautiful losers” she’s crossed paths with in her life. It’s not a far leap for these descriptive anecdotes that define classics ranging from “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles” to newer cuts like “Hum’s Liquor” (about the late Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson) to fall somewhere between being humorous and tragic, sometimes within the same sentence.
As for why she decided to tackle an autobiography, it was the next logical progression of the storytelling Williams engages in from the stage whenever she’s on tour.
“It sort of just happened over time,” she explained in a mid-September interview. “A lot of people told me I should write a book. I was always a storyteller when I would perform and that sort of morphed itself into writing the book. A publishing company in New York offered me a deal, so off I went. What led up to it was people thinking it would be a good idea. And then me talking to the people in my audiences telling them the stories behind the songs and the fans wanting to know who did I write this or that about. The book is just an extension of what I never had enough time to do on stage to go into detail about things. Or maybe I didn’t want to go into detail at that time or in that position, being on stage in front of an audience.”
The memoir took five-plus years to write, and throughout the singer-songwriter carried the self-imposed pressure of living up to the writing of her late father, renowned poet Miller Williams, to whom the book is dedicated.
“It’s kind of funny, I wanted it to be well written with my dad, of course, having been a writer,” Williams said. “I thought that it would have to be like my great American novel or something. I always pictured when I did this that I was going to go away and get a cabin in the woods or something and write this book. But it didn’t really work out that way. I was at my house like I always was.”
Williams’ self-admitted perfectionist tendencies also dogged her, particularly given the different writing muscles she had to deploy while trying to write the book.
“I wasn’t used to the looming deadlines that kept rearing their ugly head,” she said. “I kept wanting to fix and change things. I would have a piece that was written. [My husband] Tom [Overby] would type it out and we would send it to the editor and each time they would send the whole draft of the book with that in it. And I would read through the whole thing and I’d want to edit again. I couldn’t stop editing. I wanted to fix things, edit, take little chunks out and rewrite a part. And then there was all this tension. Tom is saying, ‘The book is done Lu. You can’t keep changing things. It’s coming out. It’s done.’ And I’m going, ‘No, no. I’ve got to change this part. It doesn’t sound right. It’s going to hurt someone’s feelings.’ I had a really hard time with that sort of thing.”
Not unlike her songs, “Don’t Tell Anybody” is poignant, straightforward and honest. Williams’ journey to the commercial success she achieved as a late bloomer “…well into her forties” is well chronicled from a childhood bouncing around with her professor father following her parents’ divorce and living in 12 cities and two countries (Chile and Mexico) before she was 18 to recording her 1979 debut “Ramblin’ On My Mind” for storied imprint Folkways Records.
Williams unflinchingly writes about topics like grappling with her mother’s mental illness and navigating the relationship with her stepmother, one of her father’s students young enough to be a sibling. But through it all, the reader gets a full taste of Williams’ journey that includes family lore (father Miller crossing paths with Hank Williams, Sr.) and navigating the stop and starts of the music industry that included her being mischaracterized as difficult in the wake of her critical and commercial success with 1998’s “Car Wheels On a Gravel Road.” But through it all, Williams said the process proved to be healing.
“It was all sort of therapeutic,” she admitted. “Writing the book made me miss my mother and my father a lot. As I was going through it, I realized they were really great people. I guess it made me understand them more in a way in terms of what they went through, like in the beginning, when we didn’t have much money and my dad was bouncing from job to job.”
And in the middle of all this, Williams stopped long enough to cut “Stories From a Rock and Roll Heart,” a tight mostly rocking 10-song collection that features cameos from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Margo Price and Tommy Stinson. And while the stroke robbed Williams of the ability to play guitar, a creative relationship dating back to when she was 12 and totally gob-smacked by Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” she figured out a work-around with the help of Overby and guitar-playing road manager Travis Stephens.
“The main thing on this record was that I opened myself up to collaborating on the songs with other people, which I’d never really been open to before,” she said. “It came mostly out of necessity. Since I couldn’t play guitar, Travis, who is a singer-songwriter, jumped in and said he could be me on the guitar and just tell him what I had on my mind. I could think of melodies in my head and I could still write lyrics. I had always written songs by myself — just my guitar and me. It was pretty straight ahead. This was a lot more challenging. Tom and Jesse Malin proved to be a huge help.”
With Williams and Overby having co-produced Malin’s 2019 outing “Sunset Kids,” the Queens native proved to be a great creative foil.
“Jesse is a really good songwriter whose talents I really came to appreciate,” Williams said. “I just hadn’t been aware of it as much before. That is what led to him coming in when I was working on this stuff. He would fly into Nashville from New York, which is an easy flight. We’d get together at our house and sit around the kitchen table. That’s what happened. I think we came up with a good batch of stuff.”