Long journey home

Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels roll on a perfect road

Lucinda Williams does not simply answer questions. She responds in monologue, rambling on minute after minute until the query almost seems like an afterthought. Perhaps this is because at this moment, she is rushing to get out the door and to the airport, where she will catch a plane to London for a week's worth of promotional appearances. A few TV shows, the random live gig, some sit-downs with Brit journalists--anything she can do to get the word out in the U.K. about her record Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, just released overseas though it has been out in the States for several months. She is moments away from being late for her plane, and she is not yet packed; you can almost hear her throwing clothes into a suitcase as she speaks over the phone from her Nashville home. So perhaps she's answering a dozen questions at once, getting the small talk out of the way so she can get going. No time for chitchat.

Or, more likely, Lucinda Williams can't simply contain her answers within a few sentences. She is, after all, a storyteller whose records travel thousands of miles in only a few minutes: Her songs bound from Greenville, Mississippi, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to West Memphis, Arkansas, to Macon, Georgia, in the time it takes you to drive to work. She likes to wander inside her answers, spending a little time with each thought till she finds a suitable response. Williams answers one question about the evolution of her albums--a mere five since 1978, but a more irreproachable handful of albums you will never find--by talking about her own favorite records: Judy Collins' 1968 Wildflowers and Jackson Browne's 1972 debut Saturate Before Using.

"I tend to feel real nostalgic about a lot of records, and I find myself listening to the same records over and over and over again, because it's like a security blanket or something," she says, her voice a hushed drawl that sounds half-asleep even when hurried. "Those two records especially take me back to this place that doesn't really exist anymore for me, because I'm older now and things have changed. It just makes me remember, just touches this little place, and I like to go there. Those are the kinds of artists I aspire to."

The irony is that Williams, at age 45, long ago surpassed her idols--around the time she made her very first record. Twenty years ago, Williams was an itinerant folkie, a refugee of the same Houston clubs that spawned the likes of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and their mentor, Townes Van Zandt. She was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, just one more stop in her travels. (Her father, poet and professor Miller Williams--who read at Bill Clinton's first inaugural--moved his family through the South as though they were a pack of Gypsies, and Lucinda would end up living in Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York before ending up in Nashville in 1993.) A friend recommended she call up Mo Asch and ask about signing to his venerable Folkways label, once home to no less than Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. Asch had sort of turned Folkways into a vanity label for young artists, allowing them to release anything they recorded as long as they were willing to sell it themselves.

Williams went to the Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, and recorded her debut, Ramblin' on My Mind; the album, which featured Williams performing old folk and blues standards written by the likes of Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie and Hank Williams, resounded with the echoes of history. It was a monument in miniature, the sound of one young woman and her acoustic guitar playing sideman to a bunch of old ghosts; it sounds as though it was recorded 50 years ago, but it's also timeless as tomorrow. For purists who string their guitars with rock and roll's roots, there's no such thing as dated, and when Ramblin' was re-released in 1991 on CD (with a shortened title), the damned thing still sounded archival and brand-new.

Twenty years later, Williams' fifth album picks up where the first (and its successors) left off--somewhere on the corner of Past and Present. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road still reverberates with those old vibrations that made Ramblin' such a glorious debut. Except now, she has turned the black-and-white into glorious Technicolor, filling in the beautiful starkness of the Ramblin' with accordion and mandolin and B-3 organ and dobro--more instruments than a music store. The record sounds as loose as a back-porch jam, rooted by Williams' thread-through-a-needle voice, her sly delivery, and most of all, her poignant but not sad stories about people who've come and gone out of her life.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the inevitable masterpiece at the end of 20 years: It begins with a rock-and-roll kick and then, slowly, glides toward the folk ballad "Jackson" that closes the record with a whisper and a teardrop. After 1980's Happy Woman's Blues (her second and final record for Folkways, the first where she tried out her own material), 1988's self-titled gem for Rough Trade (which featured "Passionate Kisses," a hit single for Mary Chapin Carpenter), and 1992's Sweet Old World, the new disc is both a look back at what she has accomplished and the ultimate proof that she's only now getting a handle on what she does best. Car Wheels is a rock album for the honky-tonk crowd, a folk album for kids who grew up on ZZ Top and Brownie McGhee, a country record for the gospel fanatic.

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