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Holy Hell! Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Turns 20

Holy Hell! Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Turns 20

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road hasn’t aged a single day for the same reasons that Flannery O’Conner stories don’t seem old or that a Rembrandt portrait doesn’t seem outdated.

Two decades can put a hurting on a popular recording, but Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road already seemed old when it was released in 1998. Today, that vintage feel—that beaten-up, ragged-voiced sound, that place where country and folk and boots-in-the-dirt rock ’n’ roll come together—seems positively timeless.

Critics already felt that way in 1998. But the praise for Car Wheels wasn’t because it was an album of its particular moment. Sure, Williams was a second-stage artist at the 1998 Lilith Fair festival, but she was never a Sarah McLachlan-styled folk/pop rocker. She was an exponent of something we had learned to call “alt-country” simply because it refused to follow the trends that country or rock (or whatever) were chasing in the 1980s. Williams already had a musical vision that knew what it was about, and with Car Wheels, it was clearer than ever that Williams’ music was turning toward haunted existentialism more than entertainment.

Williams’ first date, Ramblin’, covered country and blues songs in a folk vein, and Happy Woman Blues introduced a full program of Williams originals. She sounded fully formed by 1988 on Lucinda Williams, as she teamed up with guitarist and producer Gurf Morlix to make an album that would stand admirably next Steve Earle’s 1986 Guitar Town as the height of alt-country. “Changed the Locks” would later to be covered by Williams supporter Tom Petty, and “Passionate Kisses,” a straight-up pop gem, was covered four years later by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

As winning as Carpenter’s cover is, Williams’ original is better and demonstrates the strengths that would make Car Wheels a classic. The two arrangements are nearly identical (minus an unnecessary and sentimental piano introduction) but Williams delivers an infinitely more passionate and gritty vocal performance in her achy, slightly nasal slur of a voice. In her original, you can hear Williams’ origins and journey: her birth in Lake Charles, Louisiana; a passage through the South during her childhood being raised by a poet and literature professor dad; a taste of Nashville and Austin; but also the pop polish of Los Angeles where it was recorded. Lucinda Williams was critically acclaimed but no hit.

Williams made one more gorgeous record, 1992’s Sweet Old World, also with Morlix. But Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was her best achievement to date, one of those records that goes a dozen tracks deep. On Car Wheels, Williams reached a balance that is more evident than ever in retrospect. The punchy, L.A. gleam that had a small place in “Passionate Kisses” isn’t entirely faded and the increasingly mannered and dark mewl of her recent work is under control. Car Wheels catches an even measure of joyful songcraft, vocal grit and growl, and a hard, reality-based poetry.

And that’s just how Car Wheels starts. “Right in Time” is a complex narrative short story of incredible economy built on a spare country-rock frame. The music leads with a rugged Telecaster lick, but quickly moves into spare folk-rock picking. Williams’ narrator admits to someone that “Not a day goes by I don’t think about you/ You left your mark on me, it’s permanent, a tattoo.” As she shifts to the chorus, with guitars and organ kicking in, the lyrics move from looking backward to the present tense: “The way you move/ It’s right in time/…It’s right in time with me.” As the song progresses, the narrator remains in the present tense and gets intimately specific. “I stand over the stove in the kitchen/ Watch the water boil and I listen/ Turn off the television/ Oh, my baby.” Williams had always been acclaimed for those kinds of small, telling details—the interrupted moment that says so much in so few words. It’s hard to imagine a song that more effectively cuts through sentiment yet is so rich in feeling, a song that gets to how a breakup can be both painful and pleasurable, as the track transforms from metaphor to explicit expression of physical need.

This is what Car Wheels does over and over again, but in brilliantly varied ways. The title track uses the phrase “car wheels on a gravel road” not only as the chorus but as the last phrase in each line of each verse, each one a different—and specifically literary—take on childhood memories. It’s not a single story but several slices, in the details of which we track Williams across different homes, different moments of life and different emotions. The sound of those wheels coming down rural driveways promises comfort, judgment, worry, excitement, joy, tedium. The phrase “It’s only rock ’n’ roll” simply doesn’t apply to this nuanced, shaded music.

Many of the tunes negotiate transition, in romance or otherwise. “Lake Charles” is the story of a man returning home. It’s set to a mid-tempo groove with resonator guitar flavoring the verses, and the shimmering organ of Roy Bittan giving the song a pleasant light as well as a feeling of ‘60s soul-pop, despite leanings toward country. Bittan—yes, the Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band—took over the production on Car Wheels from Morlix, and he also adds an accordion solo here and on “I Lost It,” a sly metaphor song that is driven by a sloppy backbeat and a superb harmony on the chorus.

Similarly tough as nails are a couple of rhythmic rockers. “Can’t Let Go” is blues that showcases slide guitar and a slapping drum groove. “Joy” is a one-chord shitkicker that is driven by guitars that push and pull each other in the two stereo channels. Williams’ voice is muted and compressed a bit, almost rapping in a lower register then shifting upward to create its own call and response. The guitars, unleashed, alternate choruses with Williams’ angry complaint: “You took my joy/ I want it back!

When Williams isn’t cruising along in mid-tempo or rocking, she can still pull off a gorgeous acoustic folk song. On “Greenville,” she sends a lover home again with the help of Emmylou Harris on ethereal backing vocals. It’s not a delicate song lyrically, and so over its course, the band turns up the heat more and more until the pedal steel and layers of guitar turn into a folkie wall of sound. “Jackson” is more intimate, built on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Dobro and the lyric conceit of denial: “All the way to Jackson/ I don’t think I’ll miss you much.”

This is the rich way that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road functions, in literary contradictions, showing you one emotion, flipping to another; leading with rock, then contrasting it with a slice of Cajun accordion; starting out tough, then obviously becoming vulnerable. The characters are cowboys and outlaws and lovers and children. The voice is raw and refined, scratchy and pure. The music, well, it’s rock and country, folk and zydeco, blues and blues all the way through.

How does Car Wheels on a Gravel Road stand up after 20 years? It hasn’t aged a single day for the same reasons that Flannery O’Conner stories don’t seem old or that a Rembrandt portrait doesn’t seem outdated. The core of Lucinda Williams’ art is honesty and detail, with a heaping dose of American musical history. It’s the stuff that sticks with you because it’s true.

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