Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Mercury Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/04/1999
All it takes is one song off of one album for a discriminating listener to broaden their musical palate. The hypocritical phrase, "I'm open-minded, but I would never buy a (insert your most hated genre) record," has crossed many people's lips, myself included. Gangsta rap and country were those genres for me.
But when your favorite artists start to incorporate genres you detest in their own styles, you got problems. Anthrax may get you into Public Enemy, and they may get you to shell out some dough for an N.W.A. disc. Listening to the country/folk elements of a Beck album may make you want to shell out some cashola for a Johnny Cash CD, like maybe the one with that killer cover of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" (Unchained).
Which brings me to Lucinda Williams' 1998 release Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. This disc album denied Lauryn Hill a clean sweep of nearly every critics poll as it won the 1998 Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll for best album of the year. (Check out The Village Voice for the results.)
Though it may not be as revolutionary as Hill's The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is able to draw from three distinct musical genres: folk, blues and country, and still sound like a cohesive work. The country elements are easier to detect than the smell of bacon on a skillet in the morning. "Right In Time," "Drunken Angel" and "Concrete And Barbed Wire" resonate with the traditional twang of acoustic and steel guitars. And most of the songs off of Car Wheels deal with traditional subjects often found in country music: loss, barren landscapes and al-kee-hol.
Other songs have more elements of folk to them, leading this listener to believe that Lucinda Williams actually deserved to get the Grammy award this year for "Best Contemporary Folk Album." It could be one of the few times that the Grammy committee could label an album in a different musical category and still save face. The charged folk of "Can't Let Go" sounds like a track that Ani Difranco may make a couple of years down the road.
Towards the end of the album, Williams incorporates more elements of blues. This comes to a peak in the song "Joy," which builds on a mean guitar riff and has an almost gospel-like "clap along" beat to it.
With Rick Rubin at the helm for mixing and Steve Earle, another great folk/country artist, assisting Williams, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is able to blend these styles without making the product sound messy. Rubin, no stranger to style blends, working from Slayer to Run-DMC, to Johnny Cash and Tom Petty, brings out the best in Williams by making every track sound full and raw at the same time.
All of these musical elements, and I haven't even touched on her songwriting, which is damn near perfect in every track. Williams is one of the few songwriters out there that prove you don't have to unleash a 13-point Scrabble word to be profound. Her crystal clear storytelling makes some of these songs feel like they've been around for decades.
"I take off my watch and my earrings / My bracelets and everything / Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling / Oh baby," Williams sings in an intimate tone in the opening track, "Right In Time." It's a simplistic setting, but delivered with a clarity only a master songwriter could have crafted.
For the non-country lover, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road may be a bit too country for you. But you're almost there. You may start by digging the rockibilly elements of a Reverend Horton Heat CD or the acoustic ramblings of a Ani Difranco release. You're getting warmer. You then consider shelling out some cash for a BR-549 release. Getting warmer. Then you go down and buy a Johnny Cash release. Cross Johnny Cash with Ani Difranco and you've almost have a match. But even that doesn't do Williams justice. She's a talent all unto her own.
Now for my next crossover stop: polka. (I'm not ready to tackle Christian Death Metal just yet.)