By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I've always been fairly eclectic," Williams says. "I didn't really look ahead and say, 'OK, this is what I'm going to be doing five years from now musically.' It was just more that I was influenced by so many different kinds of music. The Ramblin' on My Mind record really is the roots and the basis for what I do now, and I'm still doing that kind of music now. Everything's all connected to me. One thing leads into the other, which leads into the other. I see a thread running through them all. You can look back at them and really see a whole kind of pattern emerging, but I will always pay homage to the roots of my music. Every record I do. I'm never gonna just go out and make this slick pop record...
"I like to think that each record I've made has been progressively better than the last one. That's kind of what I aim for. And that's not to say the Rough Trade record isn't a great record, but you hope that you continue to grow and you're not just making the same record over and over again, which is really what led me to change producers in midstream and just kind of...All of a sudden...I don't know. I tend to kind of get ideas as I go along. I don't always know what I want to do ahead of time."
For a while--six years, actually--it appeared Williams had no idea what she was doing. For so long, rumors circulated throughout the music business that Williams was taking so long to release a follow-up to Sweet Old World because she was locked in the studio, working with producer after producer and throwing out take after take; the implication was that the former one-take folkie had turned into a pop-slick perfectionist, running through tape like Richard Nixon in search of Just The Right Sound. Industry Web sites, where bored label employees hang out just before they get fired and start wondering just why the music biz is in such crappy shape, buzzed with rumors, every one of them insisting she had chucked two brilliant records during her quest for perfection. In reality, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road took only two years, on and off, to create--but the Internet gossips can never be bothered with the truth.
Williams began recording Car Wheels for Rick Rubin's American Recordings label with her band of 10 years, including guitarist and longtime partner Gurf Morlix. But Williams was never happy with the sound, though she never knew why until she went in to record guest vocals on Steve Earle's magnificent "comeback," 1996's I Feel Alright. She came in to guest on the album's closer, "You're Still Standin' There," and discovered upon playing back the rough mixes of the song that her voice sounded as it never had before: up-front, like a lead instrument instead of something stuck on top of a bunch of other tracks. She told Earle's producer and business partner Ray Kennedy she wanted him to re-record some songs on the album she and Morlix were finishing for American. In the end, Kennedy and Earle ended up producing all of the basic tracks for the record--infuriating Morlix and, finally, ending her friendship with him.
"There were just too many bulls in the pen," says Williams, who has been asked about the recording of Car Wheels so often, she now offers up her lengthy version of the story without any prompting. "Those guys all started vibin' each other, and I'm goin', 'Can we just get this record made, please? Excuse me, could you get out of my way here so I can do this?' It was ridiculous, that whole part of it. And that was a big pain in the ass. There was a lot of buttin' heads, and all that. But the bottom line is, it all comes out in the wash, and everybody's still friends except for Gurf and me. That's what's so ridiculous about it. He has just been pouting and pouting through this whole thing, and it's just silly.
"There's nothing I can do about it. He's just got to go through his little thing and whatever. Ya know. I sent him a Christmas card last year, and I tried to reach out and wait for him to come back, and he still hasn't, so he's just...I don't know. People have their own weird...thing, their own demons."
To make matters worse, once the record was done, Rick Rubin's American Recordings lost its distribution deal with Warner Bros. It was the third time Williams had hooked up with a label on its last legs: Rough Trade folded shortly after the release of Lucinda Williams (this summer, the album was re-released on Koch), while Chameleon disappeared into the forest after Sweet Old World hit stores. She was anxious not to let yet another record come and go without a fight and asked Rubin to let her have the tapes, which he agreed to--but only if she could fork over the money. (Williams will not say exactly how much he wanted for Car Wheels, only that it was a "really high fee" and that he played "hardball" with her.) In the end, Mercury Records "took the challenge and ran with it," as Williams says, releasing the album in the summer.