Review Summary: The way you move/ is right in time/it's right in time with me
By all accounts, writing and recording Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was nothing less than excruciating. After recording what very nearly amounted to a full album’s worth of material in Texas, Lucinda, unsatisfied with what had been created thus far, scrapped everything, headed to Nashville and enlisted the help of Steve Earle, who was in the midst of a few years of lucidity before his drug problem would come back in full force. With E Street veteran Roy Bittan behind the helm Lucinda would claw her way through a writing and recording process that Steve would describe as “the least amount of fun I’ve had on a record”. This laborious process ended up burning at least one bridge for Williams; original producer Gurf Morlax reportedly refuses to speak to her to this day over those tumultuous sessions. But all the work and misery that went into Car Wheels ended up paying off in spades, not just in terms of financial and critical success, but in the sense of craftsmanship and personality that made the record an instant titan of the burgeoning alt-country scene.
Car Wheels is more than just a strong album, it’s also an intimate portrait of Lucinda, both as a singer and as a woman. Thematically, femininity runs like a thread throughout the thirteen tracks, a theme that Lucinda gives voice to with both sun-scorched grit and graceful sensuality. The sense of location that Williams evokes throughout is also an essential part of the album as a whole, offhand references to Nacgadoches, Greenville and Jackson rendering her tales of love and loss a sense of place and context. Her voice is the vehicle which gives her red-dirt dusted tales much of their power, in turns gutsy, vulnerable, brash and melancholy, weatherbeaten, yet still burning with passion and vitality. No less vital to the record is a lyrical style which is both simple in its execution, yet deeply evocative and moving, her highway snapshot lyrics seeming to freeze moments of heartache, love and longing in time, her lyrical portraits evoking the stark intimacy of the likes of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange.
All highway poetics aside, Williams’ voice sounds simply gorgeous when paired with the driving roots rhythms that make up the instrumentals. Throughout the album, Lucinda’s backing band deserves no less acclaim than Lucinda herself, drawing out and augmenting all the grit and fire that her voice conveys with a seamless amalgamation of roots-rock, blues, alternative and Texas country that feels at once timeless and original. It’s a sound that all too naturally compliments Lucinda’s voice, melding with her vocals on each track with assured ease, from the straight country-rock of the title track to the blazing roots and rhythm of Can’t Let Go to the blues drenched Still I Long For Your Kiss. The production, warm and earthy, let’s both the band and Lucinda shine in their own right, while allowing Lucinda’s vocals to take the main stage.
The painstaking labor and perfectionism that Williams poured into Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was already something of a hallmark for the woman who was releasing only her fifth album in twenty years and the second (and last) album she’d release in the 90s. That dedication to perfection made her releases a fairly rare occasion, but it also made her one of the most consistently wonderful americana artists ever to record. Car Wheels is probably the greatest result of that work ethic, a high point in Lucinda’s career that she would eventually have bittersweet feelings for, due the tensions and lost friendship the stress of recording the album created. The album itself remains a testament to that dedication however, a searing, open and beautifully honest chronicle of lovers and piners, bastards and boozehounds and all the joy and misery they bring into the world. Any ranking of great country/Americana records would be woefully incomplete without this gem.