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Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the restless Southern spirit of Lucinda Williams’ fifth album.

When nothing but time can still the pain, a Lucinda Williams song will see you through. In her dry Louisiana drawl, she sings plaintively of abusive childhoods and bad marriages; of drunken bar brawls and suicidal poets; of her own heart that shatters and mends and shatters again, like a puzzle, down-and-out. A magnet for the kind of unrequited love that seems to stop the Earth from turning, Williams persists. Then she’s onto the next town.

Williams was born a rolling stone. Her late father, the poet Miller Williams, was a college professor and the family moved often, to Mexico and Chile and a dozen Southern towns. After Williams was expelled from one New Orleans high school in part for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in protest of Vietnam, dad gave her a list of 100 great books to read instead. (Williams’ family of civil rights activists and union workers passed on that spirit of dissent as well.) Miller’s profession brought a young Lucinda into contact with Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, and, most influentially, Flannery O’Connor. Williams would never let go of her O’Connor-inspired fantasy of writing a Great Southern Novel. Instead, Williams set hers to music, becoming an itinerant Southern Gothic beat.

At 18, she left home and belonged nowhere. There was no alternative country in 1974, no alternative rock, no Americana, and in at least one Austin bar were Williams hoped to perform, no room for another “chick singer.” Nashville told her she was too rock’n’roll. Los Angeles said she was too country. Galvanized by Bob Dylan, Williams’ songwriting evoked his poetic ambition, Bruce Springsteen’s every-people, Joni Mitchell’s confessionalism. The lonesomeness of jukebox country met the darkness of an outlaw. The whiskey-stained tenacity of the blues was spiked with the honey of AM pop. She released two albums, a 1979 covers collection Ramblin and 1980’s thrilling Happy Woman Blues, but did not catch a break until a punk label, Rough Trade, came along and signed her (making her labelmates with Stiff Little Fingers, on the one hand; Leadbelly, on the other). Lucinda Williams, in 1988, was her third album and first masterpiece. Ten years later, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was her second.

Williams was by then 45 and over two decades into her career at the fringes: touring small clubs, working with small labels, the life of an ’80s indie band more than a country star. She had released only four albums, filled with female characters who wanted it all—sung by a woman who wanted it all, too. The cool girls in Lucinda Williams songs were always packing up, pawning possessions, saving their tips to split town. There was “Maria,” in 1980, who was “wild and restless” and “born to roam.” There was the small-town waitress Sylvia, in 1988’s “The Night’s Too Long,” who resolutely declares “I’m moving away/I’m gonna get what I want.” “One Night Stand” was like a long-lost string-band ancestor of Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run.” These were mini-manifestos for a female life. Williams’ feminism rang with no stronger conviction than when she used the first-person to narrate her own desires: “Give me what I deserve cause it’s my right!” she longed on her eventual hit, “Passionate Kisses.”

If what she wanted was recognition, or fulfillment, or money—with Car Wheels, she got it. But the road there was almost comically difficult. Labels combusted in her wake: Rough Trade, Chameleon, and American all fell apart after she signed. RCA head Bob Buziak brought her to that label and then got fired. Williams and the music industry seemed allergic to one another. Lucinda Williams was an astonishing album—a classic from a renegade songwriter who never grew too hardened to admit “I just wanted to see you so bad”—but you couldn’t blame the greater public for being somewhat oblivious to it, since Rough Trade went bankrupt shortly after its release. Better-known fans kept the songs alive, with covers from the likes of Tom Petty, Patty Loveless, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. In 1997 the Los Angeles Times wrote: “It’s a good thing Williams has gotten a boost from others, because her own luck as a recording artist has been miserable.”

The six-year gap between 1992’s Sweet Old World and Car Wheels is now charged with myth. By one account, Car Wheels took six tedious years, recorded three times in three cities with three different producers. In reality, there were two years in the studio, from 1995 to 1997, and one scrapped attempt. After Williams started the album with her longtime guitarist and co-producer Gurf Morlix, she felt it was “flat, lifeless, not up to par” and chose to re-record with country fixture Steve Earle and his production partner, Ray Kennedy. She liked their warm, scratchy old equipment and how prominently Kennedy had produced the vocals on Earle’s 1996 album, I Feel Alright. When time ran out, Williams finished the album in L.A. with Roy Bittan, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, adding keyboards, accordions, guitar, and backing vocals. (Though Bittan claimed, “We redid most everything.”) A tornado hit Nashville just as Williams was mastering the finished analog tapes; someone had to race to the studio to save them.

Unlike her hero, Dylan, Williams was mapping directions home. But home, never fixed to one place, was a profound in-between, more like the breeze that pushed her. Car Wheels is a raw, exquisite travelogue of her American South, from Jackson to Vicksburg, from West Memphis to Slidell, from the Louisiana Highway to Lake Ponchatrain. She searched for novelistic detail in back roads and cotton fields and dilapidated shacks. She played furious bluegrass stompers alongside clenching Memphis soul. Williams and an ex-lover drive through Lafayette and Baton Rouge “in a yellow Camino listening to Howlin Wolf.” Loretta, Hank, and ZZ Top are called out by name. “I see the whole thing like a pitch for a little movie,” Williams once said.

But like Flannery O’Connor asserted, “Southern identity is not really connected with mockingbirds and beaten biscuits… an identity is not to be found on the surface.” Worlds exist beneath Car Wheels’ dazzling edges and monumental hooks. As “Concrete and Barbed Wire” evokes its thorny title, Williams wonders about human divides: “This wall is not real/How can it be real?” she sings, nearly cracking a yodel, a possible polemic. (The track was once covered on the compilation Songs Against Prison.) And Williams took bold risks: The opener “Right in Time” includes some of her most irreducible, eloquent poetry—“Not a day goes by I don’t think about you/You left your mark on me, it’s permanent, a tattoo”—before becoming a moaned narrative of a woman alone in bed, pleasuring herself. It is unbelievably sensual, a daydream.

The honky-tonk title track is a sung memoir of an uncertain childhood, set in a Macon, Georgia kitchen with Loretta in the air, the smell of eggs and bacon lingering. At the whim of a disgruntled parent, a young Williams watches the world blur from a car window. When she sings of a “little bit of dirt mixed with tears,” she underscores the vulnerability and toughness at the heart of her character—the shy sense of human imperfection that makes her so heroic, unsettled already from a fixed place. There’s an innocence to this phrase, “Car wheels on a gravel road.” Williams’ melodic wording is sensitive to the bumps you feel, bumps that manifest as chaos and grief and troubled men: drunk men, self-destructive men, men in bands, men doing time, ghost men. Her voice cracks and quivers, allowing ugliness when her subject so demands.

Earle was deeply inspired by rap in the mid-’90s, particularly Dr. Dre’s ’92 gangsta rap gamechanger The Chronic. And while there remains no word if Williams shared in that affinity, it’s an illuminating prospect: On Car Wheels, her words are dramatically upfront, suspended, locking into mellow grooves. That’s especially true on “2-Kool 2 B 4-Gotten,” where Williams sings a nonlinear stream of images of rural Mississippi, her most audacious attempt at a surreal, Dylanesque poetry collage. The title of “2 Kool 2 B 4-Gotten” was taken from a phrase scrawled on the wall of a Washington County juke joint—the social gathering spaces of Black Americans in the segregated Jim Crow South—which she found in a 1990 book, Juke Joint, by the photographer Birney Imes.

But Williams sets her scene 50 miles north, in Rosedale, perhaps in homage to bluesman Robert Johnson, who she namechecks in the song and who sang of the same town in his “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Markings from the wall of yet another Juke Joint photo are scattered through Williams’ lyrics: “No dope smoking no beer sold after 12 o’clock,” “No bad language no gambling no fighting,” “Sorry no credit don’t ask,” “Is God the answer YES.” Williams is like a documentarian of these spaces, which incubated the Delta blues and are extinct today. A humble Imes photo of a juke called Turks Place, in Laflore County, also graces the cover of Car Wheels.

Williams sings “2 Kool” with a toughened poise and a dash of nihilism. “You can’t depend on anything really/There’s no promises, there’s no point,” go its opening lines, and while she continues weaving her Southern patchwork—pointing to a serpent handler outside—“2-Kool” ultimately becomes a eulogy for Williams’s ex-boyfriend, Clyde. The jumbled narrative seems to mirror the impossibility of making sense of death; it never quite resolves, feels diffuse, feminine even. When Williams sings of “Leaning against the railing of a Lake Charles bridge,” of how her former lover “asked me baby would you jump in with me,” it recalls another Southern epitaph: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Williams wrote the easeful, bittersweet Car Wheels ballad “Lake Charles” for Clyde as well: “Did an angel whisper in your ear?” Williams cries. “And hold you close and take away your fear/In those long last moments?” It is as close to perfect as elegies come.

The soaring, strummed-out build of “Drunken Angel” suggests an opening blue sky. Williams’s most iconic song is another eulogy, this one for her Texan acquaintance, the outlaw underdog Blaze Foley. She wonders why it had to happen, why he had to die in senseless shootout at 39. Williams’ characterization is masterfully vivid: Foley’s outcast glory, his slovenliness. As she describes his “duct tape shoes” and “orphan clothes,” “Drunken Angel” becomes an anthemic honoring of these hidden people—too eccentric, too outside, too much—who cannot bear this world and who this world, in turn, cannot hold.

Car Wheels pivots, by side B, to a fully blistering breakup album. Williams knows what belongs at the soul of these pristine songs about merciless heartache, placing them at a nexus of obsession, rejection, and occasional delusion. “Metal Firecracker” is a flawless vagabond love song: As she is wont to do, Williams turns two people sitting in a car into a film treatment of just eight lines, remembering when she was his “queen,” his “biker,” curling that last word with so much effortless twang you can feel the sun in your eyes. “Once I was in your blood and you were obsessed with me,” Williams pines. “You wanted to paint my picture/You wanted to undress me/You wanted to see me in your future.” Love that is anything less than life-changing infatuation feels fraudulent in Williams’ world.

A gentle and foreboding ballad, “Greenville” is the resilient sound of a betrayed woman trying, with impossible grace, to keep a toxic man out of her life. The quiet of the song is in stark contrast to this aggressor who screams and fights and lies, who “drinks hard liquor and comes on strong,” who compels Williams to imagine “empty bottles and broken glass/Busted down doors and borrowed cash.” “Looking for someone to save you,” Williams sings, conjuring the feeling of being used, “Looking for someone to rave about you.” Strength and tenderness are rarely entwined so consequentially. The angelic harmonies from Emmylou Harris feel like solidarity, like another woman carrying her safely through.

The rootless rhythms of travel are survival mechanisms on Car Wheels. The album’s finger-picked closer “Jackson” is like a drifting Carter Family hymn. The deeper she gets on the road, Williams sings, the less she will miss yet another ex-lover. It’s clear this woman knows the game, the fiction, that time alone repairs a wrecked heart. “Once I get to Lafayette, I’m not gonna mind one bit,” she sings, convincing herself. “Once I get to Baton Rouge, I won’t cry a tear for you.” Car Wheels ends in motion, Williams crisscrossing the country in pursuit of herself, the thing she can count on.

Car Wheels topped the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics poll, earned the Grammy Award for Contemporary Folk Album, and entered the Billboard Top 200. In a four star review for Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau began: “Sometimes it seems Lucinda Williams is too good for this world.” Still, other critics turned mocking eyes at the supposedly “nutty” and delirious “perfectionism” Williams demanded. These criticisms would never so beleaguer a male artist—or as Emmylou Harris put it, “When a guy takes a long time to make a record, he’s a genius. If a woman does that, it’s a different matter.” A Times profile from 1997 illustrated a scene in which Williams’ male collaborators questioned her creative decisions and she proved them wrong. When, in ‘98, someone asked Williams what she learned from the process of making Car Wheels, she said, with some reluctance, “I need to learn to assert myself more in the studio environment because I’m dealing with all men. I wish I had more women to work with.”

Reading the tales of how Williams worked on Car Wheels with a record exec knocking, I’m reminded, again, of her heroine Flannery O’Connor, who refused to open the door of her Georgia home until she had completed her morning writing, even with visitors waiting. “I live in my head, pretty much,” Williams said in 1998. For all of its journeying, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road emerges as eternal proof that home, inside you, is worth fighting for.


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