NEW YORK – Lucinda Williams is returning to the spotlight this spring with an autobiography, a new album and concert appearances around the world. Less than three years ago, there was real worry that her creative voice would be stilled.
In November 2020, the singer-songwriter suffered a stroke while getting ready to take a shower in her Nashville home. Her husband, Tom Overby, discovered her on the bathroom floor. Williams was rushed to the hospital.
Her recovery has been grueling and not yet complete.
“I’m doing really well,” she told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I can walk again, I don’t have to use a cane or anything. I wasn’t sure about that for a while.”
She’s fragile and moves slowly. She’s unable to play the guitar, as continued weakness in her left side makes it too painful to grip the fret. It’s hard not to wonder if Williams, who turned 70 in January, is pushing things.
Talk to her, and her husband-manager, and it’s apparent how much she needs to be back, how they consider it part of her rehabilitation. Music was once a teenager’s escape from a troubled home life, and she’s not about to let go. The songs haven’t stopped flowing.
Retire? “No,” she said. “The thought would kind of flash through my head and I would think, I’m just not ready for that.”
Williams’ singing voice emerged unscathed from the stroke, as some critics noticed when she began performing again last summer. “Williams had an amazing stage presence, told wonderful stories about what she was singing and her voice was nothing short of magnificent,” Tom Joens wrote in American Blues Scene following a concert last September.
Her autobiography, “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,” was written prior to her stroke, and marks her first time writing a book.
“It’s partly because so many of my songs tell stories, and people are always wanting to find out the stories behind the songs,” Williams said. “I feel like the book is almost my gift to fans.”
When Williams met and married Overby, there were followers who seriously wondered if it would hurt her songwriting, since her trail of failed relationships and fleeting crushes provided uncommon fodder. The idea sounded insulting, even sexist.
Yet seeing it all outlined in print is frankly breathtaking. Her taste in men — poets on a motorcycle, she describes it — didn’t lend itself to slow and steady relationships.
One can construct a bingo card of past boyfriends, or near boyfriends, and the memorable songs those personal stories inspired: “Lake Charles,” “Pineola,” “Joy,” “Passionate Kisses,” “Still I Long for Your Kiss,” “Right in Time,” “Those Three Days,” “Wakin’ Up,” “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” and so on.
There’s some bold-face rock ‘n’ roll names, too. Readers will find out the songs that are about Ryan Adams and Paul Westerberg.
The meat of her story, however, is of surviving mental illness.
Williams’ mother was sexually molested as a young girl and spent years in and out of mental institutions. Williams’ father would say, “it’s not her fault, she’s not well.” The singer and two younger siblings grew up with a mother who was only half there.
Her father, poet Miller Williams, was an itinerant college professor constantly moving the family to different towns. He apologized to his daughter when he first heard the line about a young girl in a back seat, “little bit of dirt mixed with tears,” in the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” She hadn’t recognized she was writing about herself.
It wasn’t all bad; Williams said the parties her father’s literary friends had put rock ‘n’ rollers to shame.
An undergrad in one of her father’s classes moved into their home as a “guardian” when she was about 12. “I just tried to be as respectful as possible and ignore the questions turning over in my head,” she wrote. “But it wasn’t easy.”
That’s about when her own obsessive-compulsive disorder emerged. She began playing music, describing it as “the world I wanted to be in, a better world than the one I was in.”
Williams hopes that telling her story will mean something to people whose loved ones had mental health issues or who have their own.
“I was tired of tiptoeing around and walking on eggshells about mental health,” she said. “I wanted to talk about it more openly and not feel self-conscious talking about it.”
Williams was the classic late bloomer musically, told for years that she was too rock for country, too country for rock ‘n’ roll. She was 45 when her breakthrough and still bestselling album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” was released in 1998. She cycled through plenty of odd jobs — one of them, giving out sausage samples in a supermarket, is the straight line for a wicked comment in the book about all the men who thought they knew better what to do with her career.
Williams writes that she wanted to be like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, artists that can do pretty much what they want creatively. Not many women are given that opportunity.
“I’m starting to reach it,” she said. “If I haven’t reached it yet. I hope that I will reach it.”
Her upcoming album, “Stories From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” is in some ways a love letter to a musical life, fond reminiscences of old bands, great jukeboxes, the corner bar and two late rockers — Tom Petty and the Replacements’ Bob Stinson.
The songwriting was more difficult because Williams always worked out melodies on guitar. She had to accept help, in part from musician Jesse Malin. Her husband, who had generally stuck to the business side of music, is a co-writer on each song and road manager Travis Stephens on six of them.
“At first I was a little bit hesitant,” Williams said. “But then I saw Tom Waits and his wife had collaborated as songwriters. That made me feel more comfortable about it.”
The album also includes vocal contributions from Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa. The two hosted a dinner party that Williams and Overby attended on their second date in 2007.
“He has that Bruce sound that’s so unique and it’s on my record,” she said. “I’m still starstruck.”
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