Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the 1998 album by longtime alt-country songstress Lucinda Williams. The album was produced and distributed by Mercury Records. The album is fifty-one minutes and forty seconds in length, and includes thirteen tracks. It is considered to be a landmark album in the alt-country genre, receiving the 1998 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
This album was Lucinda's major label debut, appearing on the market in the middle of 1998 after a six year recording hiatus. What caused the hiatus? Essentially, this album resided in something of a self-inflicted purgatory for five years as Lucinda tinkered with it over and over again.
Flash back to 1992: Lucinda Williams had released a very well-received alt-country album, Sweet Old World, on the now-defunct Chameleon Records. She had been recording albums of her fusion of rock and blues with some mid-tempo earthy country-esque style for several years, each more successful than her last. For a purely independent release in a genre that had just been "born" (in the eyes of the major record labels) on a national stage two years earlier with Uncle Tupelo's underground monster No Depression, this disc sold quite well and RCA Records came calling.
So, with her most successful album to date freshly in stores and a record contract under her arm, what does Lucinda proceed to do? She starts off by spending two years doing little but touring and writing new songs without visiting the studio. By 1994, RCA was getting impatient, so they "encouraged" Lucinda to return to the studio to get to work. That she did, but after almost a year without an album being produced, RCA decided to cut their losses and she was dropped by the label.
She quickly signed with Rough Trade, but the label itself was in chaos, so she eventually re-signed with American Records in 1996. At this point, Lucinda had been working on the album for two years, tinkering with it and switching producers and production techniques more than a few times. American was expecting an album to be released soon to help cement their strong position in the alt-country genre, given their huge success with Johnny Cash and his albums American Recordings and Unchained.
Lucinda, however, had other ideas. She continued to tinker and mess with the album through 1997. By the end of the year, the album was finally nearing completion, but American Records was getting tired of continually pushed-back release dates and began to doubt that the album would ever be released. So, again, Lucinda left a label, as she and American decided to part ways.
Lucinda knew, though, that she had a great album on her hands, so she continued work on the album mixed in with some touring, and finished the disc up in early 1998. She played the album for Mercury Records and they knew that something special had fallen on their lap, so they signed her up. After six years, four record labels, four years in the studio, three producers, and countless changes to the album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was released on June 30, 1998.
Given the difficulty of exactly placing the album into any genre, Mercury released the album somewhat quietly, knowing that if some people heard the disc, it would quickly become something of an underground sensation. And that's exactly what happened. Among alt-country fans who had largely forgotten about Lucinda over the six year hiatus, the album spread like wildfire. It eventually catapulted her to the Grammy for best contemporary folk album, a fair amount of mainstream attention, and the success that the music actually deserves.
Part of the success of the disc is attributable to the fact that, even after years of adjustment and chaos, the disc still manages to come off with a rough edge to it. The disc feels as though you're listening to a few old friends playing some songs on the stage down at the local club rather than a years-polished studio album. Combine that with the well-written lyrics and this album comes across as very personal, something that is pretty rare in this era of purely marketed musicians and groups.
The album opens with Right In Time (4:35), a tale about unrequited love that sets the tone for the album by being a pleasant bluesy folk-country track with lyrics that might surprise you in their brutal honesty (do you really expect two verses about dealing with unquenched passion through masturbation from a female artist on a folk/blues/alt-country album?). Well worth listening for if you enjoy instrumentation is the excellent 12-string electric guitar work by Ray Kennedy and Greg Leisz. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (4:44) is about life in the deep South and how music and a few other common elements run through it. It is magnificently catchy, probably the catchiest song on the record, which actually says quite a lot; it seems the most obvious single from the album. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
2 Kool To Be 4-Gotten (4:42) is about a bar in Mississippi and the stories of local lore that eventually become associated with it. It flows along in a very mellow fashion, taking its sweet time in a wandering, rough fashion that actually works. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
Drunken Angel (3:20) is an ode to Blaze Foley, a legendary Southern musician. The lyrical cues on the album and the feel of the song makes me think that it hints at other musicians who died, especially Hank Williams and Robert Johnson, though countless others also apply to the song. This song was, again, written by Lucinda Williams.
Concrete And Barbed Wire (3:08) is musically very catchy and lyrically very clever, which in the end is really the recipe for an excellent song. The lyrics are about the metaphorical and physical walls that exist between people that are incarcerated and those that still love them outside the prison walls. For some reason, I get a vibe from it that it is a counterpart to Johnny Cash's legendary prison anthem Folsom Prison Blues, but it may just be my longtime admiration of Mr. Cash's songsmanship that creates the effect for me. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
Lake Charles (5:27) is about what happens when you die; where does your soul go? The song concludes that where you feel at home is literally where the heart is, and you go there after you die. It's perhaps not as melancholic as you might expect, though it's far from upbeat. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
Can't Let Go (3:28) opens with a bluesy guitar and basically sticks in that genre. It's a very earthy blues song about being unable to let go of a relationship. The strong bluesy feel is kind of interesting, since the album to this point didn't have a whole lot of blues influence. It's definitely here, though. This song was written by Randy Weeks.
I Lost It (3:31) is something of a rock complement to the previous track, again about love lost. Given the first half of the album that was largely an earthy-folk style of country music, the experimentation really comes out on the second half of this disc. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
Metal Firecracker (3:30) completes the small trilogy of songs about reflecting on love lost, this one using more of a standard country sound. In general, I feel that the middle song in this set of three is the best, but this one features some solid harmonization throughout the chorus. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
Greenville (3:23) is an extremely stripped-down folk piece. A large number of musicians are credited on it, but they are largely inaudible for most of the track; you can mostly just hear a dobro guitar being softly played and Lucinda's sweet rough-edged voice shining through. The lyrics are about how you can always go home no matter what; this is one of my favorite songs on the album. This was again written by Lucinda Williams.
Still I Long For Your Kiss (4:09) sounds like a bluesy 1960's rock song, almost as if she's trying to summon the ghost of Mick Jagger from the Beggar's Banquet-era Rolling Stones and adding a dash of Hank Williams. It comes off with a bluesy, rough-edged, sexy swagger that simply works; the title reveals the lyrics reveal the point of the song. This song was written by Lucinda Williams and Duane Jarvis.
Joy (4:01) is a stripped down rock-country mix with a strong focus on the rock part of the equation. It somewhat sticks out from the rest of the album as Lucinda gives a really strong and unusually forceful delivery; it somehow reminds me of Ani DiFranco. This song was written by Lucinda Williams.
The album closer, Jackson (3:42), features the amazing Steve Earle on acoustic guitar in a wonderful album closer that almost (to my ears) seems to be trying to capture the elements of spiritual hymns. It's about traveling away from the end of a painful relationship, and it caps the album off nearly perfectly. This closing song was written by Lucinda Williams.
This album was produced by three different production groups, with the twangtrust doing the final production and receiving primary credit for the album. Others credited include Roy Bittan, Ed Thacker, and Steve Churchyard, with co-production by (of course) Lucinda Williams. It was recorded at the Room and Board Studio in Nashville, Tennessee and at Rumbo Studio in Canoga Park, California. It was mastered by Hank Williams at MasterMix Studios in Nashville, and was mixed by Rick Rubin and Jim Scott, except for Metal Firecracker, which was mixed by Ray Kennedy.
Other albums that you may enjoy if you enjoyed this one include American Recordings by Johnny Cash, After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, The Salesman and Bernadette by Vic Chesnutt, and Lucinda's 2001 album, Essence.