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.

"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.

"None of it was an easy process," Williams says with a slight laugh and a sigh. "It's just, we came to this point where we said, 'We've got to get this record out, whatever it takes.'"

Williams suggests that perhaps the reason Morlix took his "replacing" so personally is because producing a record with Lucinda Williams is far more than a job--it's, well, personal. Her records, especially the new one, mince few words, speak in plain language, and reveal almost everything about the woman a stranger would ever need to know in order to mistake her as a friend. Car Wheels offers up a handful of songs about death--the death of love, mostly the death of friends who pissed away talent and ambition until they became victims of their own futile impulses. The subject of "Drunken Angel" is a musician Williams once knew in Austin who found his sad ending at the bottom of a bottle; she recalls not only his talent, but also the moment when it all ended: "Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart / Over the strings of your guitar / The worn down places in the wood / That once made you feel so good." Another man, who's "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," jumps off a bridge, but not before asking Lucinda if she'd like to leap with him ("I told him: 'No way, baby, that's your own death, you see'").

Williams is not one to sentimentalize such moments; she commingles sadness with anger and bitterness, tears with bile. The album's at once an adult's wistful recollection of childhood (the title track) and a bittersweet look back at a time when love meant something hopeful and good ("Metal Firecracker"); it's funny, wise, sorrowful, furious--in other words, perfect. Her language is precise; her music, enveloping. The girl who made Ramblin' has become a harder, wiser woman, and the music is that much better for it.

"You just have to start delving into other levels of it and digging deeper," Williams says. "As you grow as a person, your perception's gonna change. You're not going to have the same kind of wide-eyed sense of discovery you had when you were young, but you can go to a different place with it. You can use your wisdom as a writer, so it just kinda becomes a different perception more than anything else, and your writing improves with age, hopefully.

"In the writing world where I come out of, the older you get, the better you get. It's not like in the pop, instant-gratification world, where when you're young and hungry and living on the edge, that's where you create your best work, and when you get older, it's all over with. I don't think the amount of money you have and your level of success should have anything to do with your level of creativity. That's something between you and your demons."

Lucinda Williams performs December 8 at the Gypsy Tea Room. Jim Lauderdale opens.

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