Grace, Ghosts, and the Return of Joy: Lucinda Williams at the Bijou

Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer and relatively recent Knoxville transplant Luke Frazier.)

I was psyched to score tickets to see Lucinda Williams at the Bijou, having long been a fan but never having seen her live. I also knew that her show here was going to be a “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets” concert, billed as a “multi-media experience using songs, stories, and visuals to take us on a journey through the life and celebrated career of Lucinda Williams.”

She mixes a few of these in with regular tour dates, and that added to the allure, since it’s her writing (i.e. storytelling) that really gets me, the autobiographical confessions and tortured genius-style rawness of her lyrics. In fact, there are times I think that her music doesn’t do justice to the words, if that makes any sense. It’s why I don’t consider myself an LW absolutist, there are only certain recordings that I love, even though I appreciate her artistry.

The concert title is a reference to her excellent 2023 autobiography, Don’t Tell Anyone the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir. In that book she shared some heavy childhood trauma related to her mother’s serious mental illness and the impact it had over the course of her life. In a published interview she talks about being tired of, “…tiptoeing around and walking on eggshells about mental health, I wanted to talk about it more openly and not feel self-conscious talking about it.” I could totally relate, as my own family history includes plenty of certifiable madness and breaks from reality.

The book also gets into further chaos that was created by Williams constantly moving, mostly around the south, as her father, a poet and itinerant college professor, sought tenure. She’s been a lot of places, literally and figuratively, and the stories have turned into some incredible songs. I was also aware that she is still recovering from a stroke she had in late 2020 and wasn’t playing her guitar at this point. Well, we’re all getting older, I thought, and who knows how long she’ll be touring, best to catch her now.

Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

So, it’s been more than a week since the show and I must admit it got me feeling all kinds of ways that I’m still sorting through. It brought up mixed emotions around moving, death anniversaries, physical aging, and changing relationships. It started with Williams, who turned 71 this year, shuffling with assistance to her chair to start the show, it catapulted me back 40 years.

I was in my early 20’s when I saw Clifton Chenier, the undisputed “King of Zydeco,” struggling to use a walker to make his way to center stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He would have been in his early 60’s and looked like he was in rough shape. He would end up dying soon after. I remember thinking how glad I was to be able to see him perform while he was still alive. Now I’m as old as he was back then, and I’m glad to be seen alive at all.

There were plenty of bad choices I made in those days, and managing to come out the other side is evidence of capital-G Grace working in my life. Here I am, relatively healthy and enjoying life, including regularly taking in live music. I think I’m even appreciating it more these days than back in those wasted festival days and quests for chemical transcendence. I take far less for granted.

I have been in a bit of a reflective period as we get ready to move to the South Carolina coast. Sitting in the Bijou, I realized I was closer to William’s age than I wanted to be, and the upcoming anniversary of my own father’s death was on my mind. There was a lot to chew on as I sat there.

Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Then came William’s slow entrance and I tunnel-visioned her limitations for a few minutes. Thank God her voice was intact and strong (raspy yet rich as ever), and the big screen behind her provided visual counterpoint to her stillness (subsequently I heard from a friend who has seen her multiple times that she never was a kinetic performer). For me, it just seemed to be lining up as a farewell-style trail of by-gone days with a faint and wistful fiddle soundtrack. Clearly, I was already headed into morose musings.

I have a favorite quote from a little inspirational book I read: It’s about experiences, not days. Days are simply time locations where experiences transpired. I would add weeks, months, and years to those time locations myself, and that’s what Lucinda Williams did for more than two hours that night: share the experiences that made up chunks of her life—good, bad, and in-between.

Williams started with a story and song about seeing a street musician/preacher named Blind Pearly Brown in downtown Macon Georgia when she was just a wee girl.  From there she covered Elizabeth Cotton, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams tunes in order. Dylan’s, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry came off as heartfelt, Hank’s Jambalaya felt a little perfunctory.  From there she did a couple of her early songs before the pivot into the land of ghosts and grief.

Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

In succession she told stories and performed songs about upheaval and moving around the south (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), visiting with ghost-inhabited grandparents (Bus to Baton Rouge), her estranged brother (Little Angel, Little Brother), a suicide as experienced by a child (Pineola), a close friend’s untimely death (Lake Charles), and a musician-friend’s murder (Drunken Angel).

Nostalgia is a sensational complexity, a compound Greek word joining “homecoming” with “pain.” Out of focus memories blend with the distortion of “good old days” and self-preserving urges. Sometimes it’s best to just lean into it, and if the sweetness becomes nauseating take a sip of reality water to cut it.  The reality is that I was sitting in a beautiful historic theater listening to a songwriter of almost unparalleled mastery of her craft. The musicians in her band were excellent, especially guitarists Doug Pettibone and Marc Ford, and if I could simply stay with the unfolding stories, I had a chance to come out of this evening enriched instead of lost in my own head. It ended up a mixture of the two.

Of course, Williams travels in the territory of poignant, ennui-laced memories and matters of the interior quite honestly, perhaps genetically. Her father was the poet Miller Williams, responsible for lines like, “You do not know the wars that go on down there where the spirit meets the bone,” from his poem Compassion (which Lucinda turned into a song). And if you believe that writing is at all hereditary, then lyrics like these from Bus to Baton Rouge come as no surprise:

Ghosts in the wind that blow through my life / Follow me wherever I go / I’ll never be free from these chains inside / Hidden deep down in my soul

Maybe it’s more that the things that get talked about or overheard get passed down, or the way people speak to their children then impacts their own communication style. A few people have said I write like my dad Bernie did, and a few things I have saved of his seem to strike similar chords and cadence. He and I never got a chance to talk about it. Bernie was a corporate PR guy but years before had literary aspirations and edited his college yearbook. He was only 62 when he passed, I was 22, had been out of the house since I was 17, and about to get married.

Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

So when archival photos of Miller Williams appeared on the screen during Car Wheels, it took me to my dad, and when pictures of her friend Blaze Foley, who was murdered defending a friend, appear during Drunken Angel, it took me somehow to my sister’s suicide. And any talk of mental illness brings me to the foot of my family tree, looking up in wonder. I was with Williams on her journey, even as I hadn’t expected such a heavy response, and didn’t feel ready for it on this Friday night.

The depth of feeling was real, but the proportions kept shifting on me. Watching her spill the secrets, deal with a cough, toss casual comments about aging, reflect on her mother, reach for the throat spray, stand up to sing for a bit, ask to sit down, nod to the foibles of fame, admit to being starstruck by Bruce Springsteen singing on her new record…it all it created a spicy gumbo of time-shifting moments of meaning and connections to love and loss, ready or not, there I was.

The last third of the show included a couple of songs from her latest recording, including the excellent Where the Song Will Find Me, which was essentially a dialogue between her and the spirits that bring her inspiration. Before that number, however, she and the band stomped through a throw-back sounding tune called Heaven Blues, which Williams related to musical stuff she loved in her youth. Only now she’s looking back through the lens of years and accepting the nature of things outside human knowledge, like heaven.

Gonna see my mother, gonna see my mother up in heaven / I understand, I’ll understand when I get to heaven / Gonna make my heaven, gonna make my heaven, gonna make my own heaven…

Lucinda Williams, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

I don’t know what heaven looks or feels like, or any way to find out besides leaving this old world. I believe it is a communion of sorts, but whether spirits understand how they connect to each other is a mystery.  I do know that dimensions of time and space contain varying degrees of beauty, truth and meaning in this here world, and that Lucinda Williams brought a boatload of all three to the Bijou on this night.

I doubted there would be an encore, given the assistance Williams required and all, but file that under Oh ye of little faith. Williams returned with two raucous numbers, first Rock and Roll Heart and finally Joy. It was in this final tangy, defiant song about recapturing joy from someone who took it from her that Williams reminds us that we retain a choice: everybody gets battered in one way or another, but how we respond is up to us. For Williams, it’s about carrying on with positive force, and that’s a great lesson for us all.

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