Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Lucinda Williams
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

LUCINDA WILLIAMS IS an extraordinarily gifted songwriter blessed with a voice that's a lethal combination of girlishness and growl. She's also got a reputation as a pain-in-the-ass perfectionist who's never satisfied in the studio. While that kind of stuff gets music critics all lathered up, what it mostly means to fans is a long wait between albums and product that never sells enough to make her huge. Car Wheels is Williams's first record in six years, and in making it she reportedly went through four producers (including Steve Earle and Roy Bittan), sundry engineers, and a passel o' backup musicians. That sort of too-many-cooks approach usually yields lousy results, but these songs sound spontaneous and true, and most of them are positively luminous.

With longtime guitarist Gurf Morlix's reedy slide and unobtrusive harmonizing as a backdrop, "Metal Firecracker" is sharper than a paper cut, a slice of hurt from that time in one's past when songs and cars and sex and love were everything: "We put on ZZ Top and turned 'em up real loud/I used to think you were strong/I used to think you were proud/I used to think nothing could go wrong." The title song is more memory, a chronicle of an otherwise forgettable childhood car ride made shimmery by the uncanny precision of recollection. All girl and no growl here as Williams's vocal gently etches the scene: the central image's dusty crunch, the slam of a screen door, the admonishments of an unseen adult, and, finally, the "child in the backseat, about four or five years/Lookin' out the window/Little bit of dirt mixed with tears/Car wheels on a gravel road." The breathless dance-floor steamer "Still I Long for Your Kiss" gives way to "Joy," a brawling, ornery manifesto. "I Lost It," an old Williams tune that was positively peppy when she released it back in 1980, re-emerges more powerfully as a dirge. And "Greenville," a duet with Emmylou Harris, is mournful and gorgeous.

The vocabulary of Car Wheels is vintage Williams--the towns small and Southern, the bars dim, the distances long. But there's a great depth and clarity here that comes from the artist's obsession with memory and loss, and her profound sense of place. She can take you somewhere, as in the elegiac "Lake Charles," or through it, as in the album-closing "Jackson," where the pain of leaving someone behind reveals itself in the vow that "All the way to Jackson/I don't think I'll miss you much." Variations on that phrase are repeated over and over as the narrator gets farther away--it's as if she's trying to convince herself, or praying, that it will be so.

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