Essential Albums: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams celebrated a birthday earlier this week. I didn’t have time to properly acknowledge it then, but I’m going to do so now by paying tribute to her finest work, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

I’ve been thinking about this album quite a bit here lately. I knew it was time to put up another Essential Albums post, and I knew Lucinda’s birthday was approaching (She turned 56 on Monday)… but it was a comment from Paul on last week’s Sarah Borges post that cemented things. The consensus on Sarah’s new song is that she may have allowed her record label to smooth the rough edges of her sound in an effort to appeal to a larger audience. Paul noted that this was a fight that Lucinda had also fought (and won) many times in her career.

The evidence of her victories may be most visibly apparent on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. This is an album that was nearly six years in the making due in large part to label friction and Lucinda’s own dissatisfaction with the album’s sound. The album, as it was released, actually marked the third time many of the songs had been recorded. Sessions with Gurf Morlix were scrapped. Ditto sessions with Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy. Finally, Lucinda was able to get the sound she was looking for with E-Street pianist Roy Bittan helming the recording.

The results speak for themselves. Car Wheels was Lucinda’s first gold album, it was voted album of the year in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, and it won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The album’s reputation as one of the best ever released in the Americana genre has only grown since then.

The opening track, “Right in Time,” is a song full of private yearnings for an absent lover. The title track follows with a semi-autobiographical account of Lucinda’s childhood spent moving from town to town throughout the south with her family. The shuffling “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” was inspired by a book of photographs of old southern juke joints and was born, in part, after Lucinda spent a wild New Year’s Eve in Knoxville. I can always count on her to break this one out when she comes to town.

Of course, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” doesn’t mention Knoxville by name. It does, however, mention a few other southern locales and truly evokes a feeling of a specific region and place. In fact, the South is all over this album. Specific towns are referenced in several songs, and several others are named for southern cities. In “Greenville,” “Jackson,” and “Lake Charles” (Lucinda’s hometown in Louisiana) the titular towns are all destinations of some sort… places from the past that need to be revisited for some reason. Whether the character in the song is leaving a love gone wrong or returning to loves lost, it always seems as though a return to southern roots will solve all problems.

The most powerful song on the album, “Joy,” is also one of those destination songs. In it, Lucinda has been hurt and abandoned. She must return to the South to reclaim what has been taken from her. She does so over top of a screeching slide guitar and a driving drum beat. The fury and growl in her voice suggests she will stop at nothing to achieve her goal and may God have mercy on anyone that stands in her way.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road still holds me in rapt attention from beginning to end with well constructed songs that tell captivating stories and leave me tapping my foot the whole way through. The hardest part about this is deciding which two songs to share… I think I’ve played them all on the air at some point along the way. They’re all worthy.

Well… when in doubt… pick the two with the loudest guitars.

Lucinda Williams: Joy (Buy Album)
Lucinda Williams: I Lost it (Buy Album)

P.S.: Don’t forget to listen to Tennessee Shines tonight at 7:00 Eastern on WDVX for live music from Alejandro Escovedo, The Duhks, and more.

One Response to “Essential Albums: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams”

  1. Great post! Car Wheels remains one of my favorite albums of all time. I was just thinking recently I need to do a review of it on Muruch, since I think it’s one of those great albums that generally got lost in the shuffle over the years.

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