Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Sing Me Back Home

Counting the virtues of Lucinda Williams’ newest CD.

By Matt Hanks

JULY 27, 1998:  Finding a Lucinda Williams record is no easy task. Never mind the fact that she releases them so infrequently they invariably go out of print. Rather, the problem is knowing where to look for them. I spent a recent Saturday afternoon hoping to flesh out my own Lucinda Williams library, and the four record shops I visited had Williams’ records located in four different sections – rock, country, folk, and blues.

Though it surely makes for a marketing nightmare, this product-placement discrepancy is telling of Williams’ unique talent. Few other artists can meld these four pillars of American music as seamlessly as Lucinda Williams. Her talents as a songwriter are second only to the archetypes that have inspired her (Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, vintage Dylan). Her talents as a singer are second to none. And never before has she displayed these talents with more authority and grace than on her new album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury Records). The album is deservedly being hailed as a landmark release, a career-defining moment for an artist who’s had such moments before (remember all the attention her 1988 self-titled album garnered?). It is a pillar unto itself.

It’s also an album that demands greater inspection. And so here’s a survey of some highlights from this future-classic release. If you know where to look, you might want to pick up a copy.

Right In Time – The irony that her first new song in six years is called “Right In Time” isn’t lost on Williams. Ostensibly, the song describes a moment of sexual anticipation, but it’s informed by the same confident patience that defines Williams’ career. “Right In Time”’s languid pace and easy sway are positively sublime. It’s the catchiest thing she’s written since “Passionate Kisses,” and like that song, a testament to the powers of suggestion. When Williams sings, “I take off watch and my earrings/My bracelets and everything/Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling/Oh Baby,” oh baby, is she convincing. She documents her own sexual desires with the same passion that she might use to describe the act itself.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – There’s a reason why Williams made this the album’s title track. It’s a song with hidden levity that requires a closer look than the others. Commencing with a regimented, almost uncomfortable drumbeat, the first verse establishes the song’s protagonist as a shy, plain woman who’s concerned about something, but we’re not told what. “Car Wheels” is an example of Williams’ powers of lyrical economy, a talent she learned from her father, acclaimed poet-academic Miller Williams. Of the elder Williams she has said, “he taught me a lot about the craft of writing, of being aware of not wasting words.” Case in point: “There goes the screen door slamming shut/You better do what you’re told,” two seemingly unrelated acts, yet they frame the song’s antagonist – a possessive lover, or perhaps an abusive father – with lean eloquence. Like a memory that barely peeps above the subconscious, “Car Wheels” conveys a secret that “Somebody somewhere don’t know.”

2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten – A lilting homage to the Robert Johnson every musician wishes they could be, 2 Kool is an example of the substantial shift in production values that separates this album from Williams’ other work. Every aspect of this song – the soft snare, the warbly and warm guitar, the gently plucked bass, Williams’ delicate and breathy vocals – justifies the time spent, and the sessions scrapped in the making of this album. The careless digital reverb and thin, chimey guitar sound that limited her previous albums have been replaced with an organic depth that sounds of the earth itself. Anyone with enough money can make a perfect album, but it takes an assiduous talent the likes of Williams to make an imperfect one.

Drunken Angel – A classic in every sense, “Drunken Angel” conveys one of the album’s most triumphant moments through a tale of squandered talent. The harmonic telepathy between Williams and Jim Lauderdale is every bit as stunning as that of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. And like the best songs the latter pair lent their voices to, “Drunken Angel” will be remembered decades from now as one of the few templates for an ill-defined country-rock genre.

I Lost It – One of Williams’ purest talents is her ability to imbue well-worn notions with new truth. When she sings “I just wanna live the life I please/I don’t want no enemies/I don’t want nothing if I have to fake it,” she isn’t posturing, she’s testifying. Though rendered in a characteristically casual tone, these lines from “I Lost It” are precise – and prescient. See, this song originally appeared on Williams’ 1980 album Happy Woman Blues. It’s a testament to her integrity, to her earnest, lucid vision, that time has only increased the purity of those words. And the song rocks like all get out.

Lake Charles/Greenville/Jackson – One of the few constants in Williams’ life is travel. As a child she moved from town to town throughout the South. As a teen she lived in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. Her adult life has been only marginally less itinerant. Perhaps through necessity, she has developed a keen sense for the memories and ghosts that geography can conjure. It’s no surprise, then, that three songs on Car Wheels take their name and their resonance from dots on the Southern map. There’s a sonic and compositional continuity to these tracks; they are the album’s most plaintive songs. The fragile vocal accompaniment from Williams’ next-door neighbor and number-one fan Emmylou Harris (her again) on “Greenville,” the soft groove of “Lake Charles,” and the lonesome lament of “Jackson” make for some of Car Wheels’ most transcendent moments. But Williams knows you can never really transcend your home. You can only go back there.

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