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Lucinda Williams and her suitcase full of songs

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams was trying to get signed by a major record label, her iconic breakup song "Changed The Locks" was rejected by Los Angeles record executives as too country for rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCINDA WILLIAMS SONG, "CHANGED THE LOCKS")

SUMMERS: Then executives in Nashville passed on the song and Williams because, as they said, it was too rock for country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGED THE LOCKS")

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) I changed the lock on my front door so you can't see me anymore.

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SUMMERS: The back-and-forth shows the challenge Williams faced early in her career. Her music defied categorization. In the end, what kind of music Williams created didn't matter. Rough Trade Records signed the artist, and "Changed The Locks" was part of Williams' first big commercial record. There were more albums. There was critical acclaim and three Grammys. And now at 70 years old, Williams is still writing songs and performing despite suffering a stroke in 2020. Lucinda Williams has also written a memoir, and she's with me now to talk about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. I love your show. I listen to it all the time.

SUMMERS: Thank you for being here. Lucinda, I want to start by asking you about something that comes up in one of the first pages of your book, and it's a list of the places that you lived. And if I'm counting these correctly, that's 15 places by the time you were 20 years old. Why did you move around so much?

WILLIAMS: Well, my dad was a college professor, so I was an academic brat. My dad would teach for a year or two at a certain college and then move on to another college.

SUMMERS: That experience of moving around so much - it made it into your music. There's a moment in the book where you talk about the first time your father heard you play the song "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Sitting in the kitchen, a house in Macon. Loretta's singing on the radio.

SUMMERS: Can you just tell us a little bit about that song and what that moment meant for you?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. That song is - you have to imagine it's life as seen through a child's eyes, trying to get ready to leave to go somewhere and trying to find, you know, the keys and packing the suitcases and everything, the child in the back seat listening to the voices in the front seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Telephone poles, trees and wires fly on by - car wheels on a gravel road.

I was playing at the Bluebird in Nashville, and my father was in the audience. And I performed the song, and it was the first time he'd heard it. And I went backstage afterwards, and he told me how sorry he was. And I said, Dad, what do you mean? And he said, well, that new song you wrote - he said, you were the child in the back seat. And until that moment, I hadn't realized that I was writing about myself and that he had recognized that. So it was kind of a bittersweet moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCINDA WILLIAMS SONG, "CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD")

SUMMERS: As a person who loves to write, I loved the way you described your writing process in this book and the idea that you put into my mind of you carrying this suitcase full of references and notes and snippets of ideas so that they're there at your fingertips any time, ready to be deployed into a song. Do you still carry a briefcase like that?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I've got it at home right now. I had so many notes and miscellaneous pieces of paper with lines and everything on them that I finally decided to create these files for each separate song so, like, I could pull out a file for a certain song that I wanted to work on some more. It just made it easier to access everything. I like, you know, pen and paper.

SUMMERS: Can you let us in on an example of one of the notes that we might find in there?

WILLIAMS: Well, might be a song that I started and haven't finished yet. You know, I've worked on a song sometimes for a few years off and on. Like "Drunken Angel" - that one took a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNKEN ANGEL")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Sun came up. It was another day, and the sun went down. You were blown away.

SUMMERS: What made it take so long?

WILLIAMS: I mean, I was trying to describe this particular person. And the thing is when I go in to write about someone like - you know, somebody who's maybe - has a drinking problem and, you know, is somewhat self-destructive or something like that, as the writer, I have to be compassionate. And I've got to put some of myself in there. I don't want to sound judgmental. That takes a lot of thought and a lot of work for that to come across.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNKEN ANGEL")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Drunken angel, you're on the other side. Drunken angel, you're on the other side.

SUMMERS: As we mentioned, you had a stroke back a few years ago. I'd like to ask you, how are you doing? How has recovery been going?

WILLIAMS: Well, I told somebody the other day, recovery is a [expletive]. Sorry. Was - can you say words like that on the air?

SUMMERS: You know, we can bleep things.

WILLIAMS: OK. You know, and I've had a lot of rehab, a lot of physical therapy. And I credit that with me getting back on my feet as soon as I did because, I mean, I couldn't even walk at first. I literally would try to walk across the room and lose my balance and fall down. I had to practice with a cane, and they gave me a walker to use. And - you know, and then I had a wheelchair for a short amount of time. But I learned to walk. You know, that I learned pretty quickly because I didn't want to be dependent. So I got out of the wheelchair. I got off the cane. And I'm walking but slowly but, you know, not the way I used to.

SUMMERS: Has your recovery changed the way you write your music?

WILLIAMS: Well, I haven't been able to play guitar, which has been a real drag. I'm hoping that'll come back, too, just like my walking did. But I'm still doing it. I'm still writing, and I'm still performing with my band. I just don't play, but they back me up. And I sing, and my voice is still - is fine. That hasn't been affected. I find myself writing in my head a lot.

SUMMERS: I mean, you have had this incredible career and created so much beautiful music. Do you think about what might come next for you?

WILLIAMS: Well, like I'd mentioned, you know, I'd love to be able to play guitar again like I was doing before. I mean, I would love to get back to the me that was before my stroke. You know, I don't know if that'll ever happen, but that's what I would like to see. I don't know what to - who knows what the future might bring?

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCINDA WILLIAMS SONG, "MAN WITHOUT A SOUL")

SUMMERS: Lucinda Williams. Her memoir, "Don't Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You," is out now. Lucinda, thank you so much for talking with us today.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN WITHOUT A SOUL")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) You're a man without truth, a man of greed, a man of hate, a man of envy and doubt. You're a man without a soul. All the money in the world... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.