It took me seventeen listens to realize that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the story of a breakup. It took my slightly fewer listens to realize the lyrical genius of Ms. Williams. See, when you start on the album, and you get that twang, but like a late-90s twang, that she sings with, and you see the lyrics as simple. Basic rhymes. Not realizing the story happening underneath. That couldn’t be less true — it just takes a few listens.
I started on this album two years ago. That was ‘I Lost It’ and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It became one of those songs I couldn’t listen to twice in the same week, but if I came on randomly, I sang loud and rekindled a love for it. Same goes for seeing it covered.
The other songs came slowly in. First was ‘2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten’, the awkwardly named jam that comes right at that sweet spot in any relationship when you think someone is beyond god — can’t believe the whole world isn’t in on the secret of who this person is (and how happy they can make you). On ‘Metal Firecracker’ when she says “I used to think nothing could wrong,” it’s not hard to imagine the scenes painted in ‘Forgotten’.
I found the title track soon after (“found” meaning it stuck with me and I listened to it on repeat for hours). Then ‘Greenville’ the slow, dripping, almost too-close-to-the-bone track that comes at the end of album (and the relationship). “Go back to Greenville” seems about as close to a bootkick in the ass as it comes in Lucinda Williams’ world.
‘Right in Time’, ‘Lake Charles’, ‘Can’t Let Go’ all came in their own time. It’s such a great album, I’m almost astounded that I found so many tracks individually (listening through the album and finding one track has stayed with you after….or having to replay that track on a full album listen), and not the whole thing in one swoop. Instead of “wow there are MORE great songs on this,”…it was “well, this is my song for the week now” and isolated the others behind.
Ultimately, Car Wheels is one of the best form=function albums I’ve ever heard. For one, Williams voice sounds like the title track (let’s come back to that). So do the guitar tracks, which aren’t quite poppy, not quite full-country, not quite alternative. It’s all quite undefinable, until you hear that phrase. It’s the oh-so-distinct sound of car wheels bursting through a gravel road. Rough, kicking up rocks, but still getting there. That, too, a metaphor for any relationship. It’s perhaps the best named album of the 1990s.
The idea of roads, curving into something (a mystery, a moment, a yellow el camino playing howlin’ wolf…) is depicted on the front cover and you wonder if the whole album might have been written just by staring at that picture (pre-album). It’s possible. Roads are so prevalent in the album’s songs, we’re never too far from that blue-skied scene. This idea that gravel roads exist at all moments in a relationship (getting back to Lake Charles on a getaway, on the way to eat some bacon in Macon, or going back to Greenville broken-hearted), stays with you. If it’s all the same road then the rest is just details. You can drive the same gravel county highway in love or out of it and it ain’t gonna make much difference. Same sound. Memories are a’coming.
Back to her voice. I didn’t know Lucinda Williams before this album. (And a thanks to Captains Dead and his albums list) I’ve tried to watch some of my favorite tracks live on Youtube. It’s not great. The voice carries so well on record, backed by that country ramble of guitar winding down the road with her. The voice itself is like that gravel road. Rough until your ears smooth it over. The simple songs (mostly same lyric progression, lots of choruses…) gives that simple Southern feel and probably some of the smoothness needed to take the edge out of the voice. One gets so trifled with Bob Dylan, perhaps, because of his insistence on complexity AND a rough voice to start with.
Needless to say, the voice is no longer an issue (if it once even was). It’s beautiful in its own skin and grit. Car Wheels has worked its way up in my book. Quite high, actually. It’s the perfect accompaniment when you need some attitude without the angst or snottiness. Williams is a straightshooter with a pistol of beauty on this one. Simple, country songs that escalate a mile (or, in this case, take you a mile down the road). I’ll be singing that ‘Metal Firecracker’ chorus for years to come. Don’t tell anyone my secrets might be the saddest declaration of a relationship burnt out, and she captured that on the same road as the man she sings ‘Right in Time’ about. That’s a journey.
Ranking If I HAD To Give One (RIHTGO) — 9.1/10