Williams hasn’t just perfected a style, she’s mastered a subject. She doesn’t just write realistically and music traditionally, she describes and evokes Southerners for whom realism and traditionalism are epistemological givens. She writes for them, too–not exclusively, she hopes, but in the first instance. They are her people and her neighbors, with damn few media-savvy professionals among them. So reassuring shows of hip come no more naturally to her finely worked, cannily roughed up songs than pop universality. Situated in a subculture far removed from both Manhattan and Alternia, these indelible melodies and well-turned lyrics constitute a dazzling proof of the viability of her world and a robust argument for its values. Emotion makes you smirk? Local color has no place in your global mall? Well, you have Lucinda Williams to answer to. Because this is where she establishes herself as the most accomplished record-maker of the age. A+
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the fifth studio album by Lucinda Williams, released on June 30, 1998, by Mercury Records. It was recorded and co-produced by Williams in Nashville, Tennessee and Canoga Park, California. The album features guest appearances by Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.
“Right In Time” [Live from Austin, TX]
“Intentionally or not, the album’s common thread seems to be its strongly grounded sense of place — specifically, the Deep South, conveyed through images and numerous references to specific towns. Many songs are set, in some way, in the middle or aftermath of not-quite-resolved love affairs, as Williams meditates on the complexities of human passion. Even her simplest songs have more going on under the surface than their poetic structures might indicate. In the end, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is Williams’ third straight winner; although she might not be the most prolific songwriter of the ’90s, she’s certainly one of the most brilliant.” – Steve Huey (Allmusic)
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
The Title track, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Live 2009):
After signing a record deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, Williams began recording songs for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1995. The album was originally made in collaboration with Williams’s long-time producer and guitar player Gurf Morlix. According to Morlix, the recordings (in Austin, Texas) were “90% done,” but Williams shelved them and redid them in Nashville. In the middle of the re-recordings, they “butted heads in the studio” and ended their partnership. She also worked with Steve Earle who said of the experience that it was “the least amount of fun I’ve had working on a record.”
The final version of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was produced by Roy Bittan. Williams incorporated country and blues elements into her modern roots rock style for the album.
The master tapes for those “alternative” sessions were kept and have been making rounds through bootleg circles ever since. Not too hard to find online, and well worth the search even if the definitive album is the official one.
“Sometimes it seems Lucinda Williams is too good for this world. Since cutting her teeth on an acoustic blues collection for the Folkways label in 1979, she has released just four albums of originals in 18 years, each for a different company. The first–1980’s Happy Woman Blues, also for Folkways–is merely wonderful. The other three–Lucinda Williams (1988, Rough Trade, then Chameleon, then Koch), Sweet Old World (1992, Chameleon), and now Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)–are perfect. Immersed in time-weathered musical materials, demonstrating near absolute mastery of the pop songcraft that has been crystallizing at the conjunction of blues and country for half a century, Williams’s writing is excellent only when it isn’t superlative. Her lyrics are easeful, trenchant, imaginative, concrete, and waste-free, her tunes always right there and often inescapable. There isn’t a duff song on the three records.” 5/5 stars
– Robert Christgau
This is a masterpiece and one of the very best albums from the 90s no matter what genre you listen to.