Lucinda Williams on making music at age 70, learning from her poet dad

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Lucinda Williams points to her dad as her greatest teacher: “I looked up to him — not just as my father but as a writer. And I learned a lot that way, almost by osmosis. In a sense, it was like an apprenticeship.” Photo by Danny Clinch.

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Musician Lucinda Williams put herself on the map more than 30 years ago with her song “Changed the Locks,” but at the time, major labels said she sounded too rock for country music or too country for rock. Still, the British punk label Rough Trade Records released her album to critical acclaim. A decade later, she found mainstream success with her hit album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

Then in 2020, she suffered a stroke that impaired the left side of her body. She was forced to stop playing guitar and had to relearn how to walk. Then in 2021, she returned to the stage as the opening act for Jason Isbell at Red Rocks in Colorado.  

This April, she released a memoir called “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You.” And her album “Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart” came out in June, featuring collaborations with other artists, such as Margo Price on the political track “This is Not My Town.” 

Looking back, Williams tells KCRW that she moved around a lot as a child, following her dad who took different literature teaching jobs nationwide. Her father, Miller Williams, was friends with seminal writers like Charles Bukowski and Flannery O'Connor, and he read aloud a poem at the Capitol for President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.

“I probably didn't realize the intenseness of it till later, when I looked back on it when I was writing my book. … I got to see them as just regular people, friends of my dad’s who would come over to the house, or we would go to their house and … my dad would ask me to go get my guitar and come play a couple of songs. … So some of those people were my first audience — these great minds,” she says. 

Williams adds that her dad was her greatest teacher. 

“I looked up to him — not just as my father but as a writer. And I learned a lot that way, almost by osmosis. In a sense, it was like an apprenticeship. The last thing I sent him … I think it was the songs for the ‘Essence’ album. And he got back to me … and he said, ‘I think this is as close to poetry as you've ever been.’ …  I said, ‘Really? Does that mean I've graduated?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you graduated.’ So that meant everything to me.”

Miller Williams died in 2015 at age 84. 

In “Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart,” the younger Williams talks about others who’ve passed away too, like Tom Petty. So is the album partly a memorial? 

“I guess. I might not have recognized that on a conscious level at the time. But I'm sure it informs some of the songs and maybe the mood of the album,” she says. “Because you have to remember there was COVID, then a hurricane blew through Nashville and knocked off part of our house. And then I had my stroke. … During this time … we lost important, wonderful people. It just seemed like every other day, we were losing someone. And the tornado and my stroke, it was almost a biblical thing.” 

More from Press Play's Summer Mixtape series: 

Ozomatli & Raul Campos
Carla Morrison & Ro Wyldeflower Contreras
Boy George & Valida