Inside the resonant timelessness of her greatest album
It’s one of the oldest music business tropes around, one that hasn’t gone away and probably never will — the “difficult” woman.
If a guy does the same thing, he’s automatically an auteur, but heaven forbid a woman do it, because, well, you know the words.
Lucinda Williams no doubt heard those words before Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out 25 years ago today, six years after its predecessor.
But upon first listen then and after however many more listens now, it’s apparent that Williams was absolutely correct about what she wanted.
Wiliams already was a lifer at that point. Her first album came out in 1979 and she was in her 40s when starting work on Car Wheels.
She’d also gotten that reputation as dificult by then, something that tends to be attached to smart women with opinions in any field. The music biz certainly isn’t immune.
Her previous album, 1992’s Sweet Old World was initially recorded for RCA, but label people took the recordings out of town to mix without Williams’ involvment.
Upon hearing the slick results, she decided to scrap it and jump labels. She wound up on Chameleon Records, able to put out Sweet Old World, a terrific album that was quite well-regarded. It was less overproduced, but still wasn’t to Wiliams liking.
Thus, she knew she did not want to make Sweet Old World 2, but first, she needed a label again. Chameleon had gone under, forcing Williams to find a new home. She settled on American Recordings, with work on the album beginning in early 1995.
In essence, recording was broken up into three chunks. The first sessions were with Gurf Morlix, who’d been in her band for over a decade and co-produced Sweet Old World and 1988’s Lucinda Williams.
Those sessions resulted in what could have been the album, but Williams wasn’t happy with the sound, particularly on her vocals (with “Jackson” being a particular sticking point).
They took a break, which allowed her to find what she wanted, while making a guest appearance on what would be Steve Earle’s 1996 album I Feel Alright, singing on “You’re Still Standin’ There.”
Upon hearing the roughs of Earle’s album, she wanted to bring him in, along with Ray Kennedy, who’d worked on producing the track she appeared on.
She played the roughs for Morlix, who absolutely hated them. Undeterred, she started work with Earle and Kennedy, with Morlix no longer involved on the production side. That working relationship proved untenable, leading to a 1996 parting that was far from amicable. To this day, he reportedly refuses to speak to Williams.
Things improved with Earle and Kennedy, even if Williams and Earle were sometimes at odds.
“I was really insecure in the studio, and Steve was not,” Williams told Billboard. “We did butt heads several times, but that’s just because I hadn’t made that many albums to speak of. He already knew how things went. Plus, he’s pretty headstrong and likes to get in there and get it done. I was questioning myself a lot.”
Whatever disgreements cropped up between Williams and Earle, the real hurdle came from immutable fact — producing other artists was not his day job. His album was coming out and he needed to tour behind it.
Car Wheels was mostly done again, but needed Williams’ vocals, ones she could live with. And it should be noted, American’s Rick Rubin also was reportedly dissatisfied with the vocals. Earle left expecting to return to finish those up as well as additional work, but Williams didn’t want to wait.
That’s how Roy Bittan, longtime member of Bruce Springsteen’s backing band, came on board. The vocals were finally finished, as well as some additional overdubs.
In the middle of all this, there was more business drama. This time, American was in the middle of a shift in distribution partners which left Williams without a label again. The album basically sat for a year through negotiations to get the masters back from Rubin, a frustrating wait given that Williams had a buyer for them. At long last, the deal with Mercury happened and Car Wheels was coming out.
During the final sessions, a New York Times Magazine cover story (written by a man) came out, painting Williams’ desire to make the album she wanted as “nutty perfectionism.”
“I try not to get too angry because it’s not healthy, but of course it bothers me that the media label women ‘difficult.’ That kinda thing happens in daily life with women: ‘She’s crazy, and be careful,’ and all,” Williams told Shondaland earlier this year.
It was all too easy to pay attention to the rumor mill when it was fueled by the Times story quoting her then-manager as saying, “There are times Lucinda’s a Hope diamond and times she’s a bowl of cornflakes.”
The truth was it was going to be her name on the record and it wasn’t her fault that the first producer told her that what she wanted sucked. Nor did she have anything to do with being in label purgatory for a year.
All the stories and rumors became background noise upon the album’s release. Here was a collection utterly steeped in a sense of place, able to picture those wheels kicking up dust as the sun sets. This was a verisimilitude where one could feel the swampy heat of the various places in the South where she’d spent most of her childhood, not just the “Lake Charles”, “Greenville” and “Jackson” referenced in the song titles.
It wasn’t just the places, but the people who inhabited them, in a world of love and death. Through it all, Williams’ drawling voice tells their stories in a way that leaves one feel they’re hearing it direct from the source, fitting the material like a trusty, comfortable jacket.
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” is a memoir snapshot set to music. Williams’ father, Miller Williams was a poet and scholar who tought at several locations during her childhood. Throw in the upheaval of a divorce, a mother who’d had a traumatic childhood who’d go on to suffer mental illness and alcoholism and they were not the most settled years for Williams and her siblings.
She was that “Child in the backseat about four or five years/Lookin’ out the window/Little bit of dirt mixed with tears”, achingly relatable for anyone who’d been in anything approaching similar circumstances. For the record, this writer’s childhood checks some of those boxes — moving around a lot with seven schools, divorce, single-parent home, mother with mental illness.
Her father definitely was taken back to those years.
“He said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry,’” Williams said in her memoir. “I had not realized that I was writing about myself the whole time.”
For all the instability of those younger years, Miller Williams was a strong presence in Lucinda’s life. He supported her protests of the Vietnam War, even making sure she wouldn’t get expelled for not submitting to the forced patriotism of saying the Pledge of Aliegiance at school (a professor who knew ACLU lawyers was a good thing for her). He supported her as she dropped out of the University of Arkansas (where he was teaching at the time) to pursue music in various parts of the country. For years after, he could be a sounding board and b.s. detector for her, including the making of Car Wheels.
“My dad said, ‘Well I don’t think you should use the word ‘angel’ in ‘Lake Charles’ because you already used it in ‘Drunken Angel’ and now you’re being kind of redundant,'” Williams told SPIN in 2016. “He said, “Can’t you change that to something else? What about the devil whispered in your ear?” and I said, ‘No, dad, that’s not gonna work. It has to be ‘angel.’ And he just said, ‘Okay, but that’s it. You’ve used your quota for ‘angel.’ You can’t use it in any other songs.'”
“Drunken Angel” is about the late Blaze Foley, a man blessed with real talent, but shit luck (one album lost due to a DEA bust of a producer, another when the master tapes were stolen from the station wagon he lived in). He was a troubled man (alcohol is not effective medication for someone with bipolar disorder), unforgettable to those who knew him. Townes Van Zandt, a friend, influence and no stranger to personal demons, once said of him, “He’s only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.”
Williams got to see both sides of Foley — the sweet and the wild — when she was in Austin. “Drunken Angel” is loving, mournful and full of writerly detail (the “duct tape shoes” were very real), a portrait of a man who couldn’t get out of the way of his own demons (getting shot to death in 1989).
As Earle, who knew Foley in those days said to Billboard, “She has this way of writing epitaphs, and she writes epitaphs that are art. She’s really, really good at it.”
It wasn’t the only one on the album. “Lake Charles” was about an old boyfriend, Clyde Woodward, who had died years after they’d split up. Hospitalized with cirrhosis of the liver, he had some folks able to steel themselves see their dying friend, others not. When things took the final turn for the worst, word got to Williams, who flew to L.A. to see him, but didn’t make it before he passed.
A low-key, soul-tinged blues, “Lake Charles” bittersweetly sketches a man whose final return to place he felt most at home were when his ashes were scattered in the lake itself.
It’s a relationship dying in the snappy cover of Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go.” It’s one of only two songs on the album Williams didn’t solely write, the other being the bluesy heartbreaker “Still I Long For Your Kiss”, which she co-wrote with Duane Jarvis.
Williams was a friend of Weeks in L.A., becoming a fan of the song when she heard him perform it at the Palomino Club. Years later, on Car Wheels, Williams makes it her own, embodying the “fish out of water” and “broken down like a train wreck” with musical backing that sounds like you’re sitting right next to a campfire, albeit one with nearby plug-ins for the electric instruments.
If Williams knew what she wanted in the studio, she knew what she doesn’t want in a relationship in “Joy”, pointedly telling a now-ex “I don’t want you anymore/Cause you took my joy” with rolllicking roadhouse backing.
It’s followed by the subdued finale “Jackson,” where things come full circle, only the open road isn’t a step in being uprooted from home, but a path to freedom from an ended relationship.
“Metal Firecracker”, the one song to wind up with Earle’s mix, was about the perils of a fling with a bandmate. She broke off a relationship to date her bass player (the title was his nickname for the tour bus), against the advice of the rest of the band. It was good advice, as at tour’s end, he told her over the phone, “I love you but this relationship doesn’t fit my agenda right now.”
The musicians on Car Wheels — bassist John Ciambottie, drummer Donald Lindley and a whole host of guitar players, including Morlix, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Charlie Sexton and Earle – give Williams supple backing as she invokes multiple genres.
Williams was not unlike women slightly her senior, albeit without the early success. Emmylou Harris hd expanded beyond country as Bonnie Raitt would beyond the blues.
Williams, though, remains without a consistent label, partly because the suits didn’t know what to do with her, wondering why she couldn’t just fit into a neat little niche.
Harris guests on the kiss-off song “Greenville”, her lilting harmonies pairing nicely with Williams’ dust-scuffling lead.
Earle’s appearance, also well-chosen, enlivens “Concrete and Barbed Wire”, a song about love surviving despite the man being in prison.
The rootsy opener “Right In Time” sounds like a love song, but paying closer to attention to the lyrics reveals that the song is Williams’ “She Bop”, an ode to the lust that springs from love, even when a partner isn’t around.
Williams takes a break from love, death and self-pleasure on “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten”, her languid vocals married to a salute to the places that birthed the music that set up shop in her DNA. The music even as it changed, outlasted the closed, abandoned and burned down clubs and juke joints that were replaced by parking lots and the like.
The album became the biggest seller of her career, getting numerous positive reviews and earning her a Grammy for Best Folk Album. It also kickstarted a successful, if somewhat amorphous genre — Americana. It was hardly the first. A lot of terrific albums had preceeded it in the ’80s and ’90s, releases that were tagged as alt-country.
VIDEO: Lucinda Williams performs “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” Live in Austin, TX
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was one of the big releases at the point where the genre label shifted. The Cliff Notes version is that the label covers artists who got ignored in other formats (looking at you, country programmers). It was where country, rock, folk and blues could hang out and intermingle.
For all the reputation of Williams as a difficult perfectionist through Car Wheels, she’s been much more prolific since its release, basically putting out a new studio album every two years since the turn of the century, along with recent series of live covers releases from the pandemic.
Her newest album, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart, was released today. It’s her first in three years, but not due to “nutty perfectionism,” but having to recover from a November, 2020 stroke (she still can’t play guitar) and finishing her memoir — Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You – which was released in April.
It’s apparent from her post-Car Wheels studio output that she hasn’t compromised herself to appease the productivity gods. Perhaps that album helped her get much closer to what she wanted, being aided by inhabiting environments that have been supportive of her creative vision from the start. If the album didn’t put her on MTV’s Total Request Live or anything, it was successful enough (going gold) to cause a reduction in interference from the business people. That’s led to much less label hell, as she’s only recorded for two of them this century.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, for all Williams’ work before and since, remains the watershed album in her career, the last of the trio of albums that set the musical tone for her career and, to this day, the most immediate of the bunch.
Williams said in 1997, “People think I’m never satisfied with anything. And maybe I am a bit demanding. But I don’t think I should have to defend myself. All that should matter is the quality of my records.”
All these years later, the resonant timelessness of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a perfect summation for the defense, which can be wrapped up in three words: She was right.