Sunday Night Journal, April 16, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, April 23, 2017

52 Albums, Week 16: Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams)

I don’t think it would matter what language Lucinda Williams was singing in, I think her voice would have the same effect on me regardless. I’ve never heard anything like it. It is hard to say with certainty because as I have been listening to this disc over and over again and I keep changing my mind, but I think that “Lake Charles” at least right now and at this moment, is my favorite song on the album.

I love the way she sings:

He was born in Nacogdoches
That’s in East Texas
Not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody
He was from Lake Charles

She draws out the town name Nacogdoches to at least two more syllables than are really there, and simply sings the rest of this little verse with a yearning that doesn’t seem necessary considering the mundane aspect of the lyrics presented. Lucinda was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana herself (not Nacogdoches, Texas) and is the daughter of a poet.

Something about her music changed with this album. I had heard Lucinda before, and may even have owned the previous album (Sweet Old World), but when Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out it was pretty amazing. She was singing on the Today show, she had a single on the charts; everybody seemed to know who she was for a brief period of time in 1998-99. I was riding to work this morning listening to the CD yet again. The production values are so good, the musicians playing the instruments are absolutely perfect, and something is different with Lucinda’s voice. She had that voice before, but it seemed muted and restrained compared to what she did on this album and going forward. There are the previous four albums, then Car Wheels (the high point), then all of her others which are not as good as this one, but better than the first four.

There is one other CD I own which astonishes me with how good it sounds when I put it in my home stereo, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

As you might imagine I was somehow able to see Lucinda in concert the year this album was released. It was in a little place called the Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach, Florida. Despite all of the hype going on about Car Wheels at the time, the show was pretty lightly attended. Lucinda mentioned the small crowd between songs and a lady in the audience went “Ahhhhh”, to which Williams then replied, “Don’t feel sorry for us, we’ve been playing to some very large audiences on this tour!” Not to mention the Today show. South Floridians are fickle.

On the song “I Lost It”, Lucinda sings:

Gimme some love to fill me up
Gimme some time, gimme some stuff
Gimme a sign, gimme some kind of reason
Are you heavy enough to make me stay?
I feel like I might blow away
I thought I was in Heaven, but I was only dreaming

In this case, the urgency in her voice matches the lyrics sung.

The album is a travelogue of Southern cities and places. Among those mentioned, are:

Louisiana – Algiers, Opelousas, Slidell, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Lake Pontchartrain (which is a lake, not a city)

Mississippi – Jackson, Vicksburg, Rosedale

Georgia – Macon

Arkansas – West Memphis

South Carolina – Greenville

Texas – Nacogdoches

She missed the chance to mention Natchitoches, Louisiana too, but it is not pronounced phonetically like the similarly spelled city in Texas. I’m not sure why I mention this geography, other than that since I live in the South and have been to most of these cities it is fun to hear them in song, overwhelming really for just one album. You do think “Louisiana” when you listen to this album; the voice, the instruments used, the way they go together to make the sound. There is a Cajun-y, Zydeco sort of thing going on in the background of many songs.

Several years ago, I was travelling with a friend to some remote beach in the Florida panhandle and we were playing another Lucinda Williams disc in the car. He informed me that he does not like male singers, only enjoys listening to female voices. This has nothing to do with anything, except that Lucinda was singing when the comment was made to me. It is a curious statement.

I put the CD in my car when I decided I should write on it, and have probably listened to it seven or eight times in the past few weeks. It does not get old. The songs are powerful, and just when I think there might be one or two weak ones, the next listen through something invariably strikes me about one of those songs. Silly lyrics can be fueled by fantastic musicianship, or even just her very powerful voice. Emmylou Harris sings the song “Greenville” with her, and there is no female singer working who can better sing harmony.

I recommend this album to everyone, without reservation. To paraphrase Nick Hornby (from his book, Songbook) it is one of those albums that you love, recommend to everyone, and become grumpy if they do not love it as much as you do!

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog, and is just trying to do the best he can. What else can he do?

Comments

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I haven't heard this for a long time. I remember thinking that the best tracks were outstanding but others not so interesting. So I guess that puts me a bit into the makes-you-grumpy category.

There is indeed a change in her voice between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels, and that brings me to a gripe: in what I've heard of her stuff since Car Wheels--she's taken that slurred, drawled style to a point where it irritates me. I was listening to the samples of Ghosts of Highway 20 and thinking the songs sounded good but I wasn't sure I could enjoy her singing very much. I'm not sure how to describe it...like her tongue isn't working right or something.

She may spend more time actively drunk now than before, Mac. Just kidding, I know nothing about her and alcohol!

She sure sounds like that could be it. There is another singer who does that sometimes, what's-her-name with Over The Rhine. It kind of ruins some of their songs for me.

I never heard of her, but it sounds good.

It is.

Now not just quite but very grumpy! Most regrettable.

Back when this came out almost 20 years ago (!) I was listening to a lot of "alt country" and Americana, and this was a fave. For some reason it hasn't stood the test of time for me as well as some of the others from that period, however. Maybe it's just be that my tastes have changed.

Absolutely agree though that the playing is top notch and the recording is outstanding. I'm pretty sure the album won a Grammy in some category or other.

Her bluesy, tipsy sound makes me think of Billie Holiday as she might have done country.

Maybe that's where the slurring is coming from. Here's the title song from Ghosts of Highway 20. I like the song. Maybe I'll get used to the vocal oddities.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vu1kBnR01VM

I listened to the first four songs on the way to and from the grocery store. They're great. "2Kool 2B 4gotten" especially. Brings back powerful memories of adolescence.

Those who like Lucinda may want to check out Angel Olsen's album My Woman. Her voice isn't the same, but the music is somewhat similar, except that it's got a bit of a 60's Phil Spector-ish vibe.

I had never heard of her before but last week I was in a cool little brewpub that A) has very good beer, B) has no TV's, and C) has an owner/operator who plays vinyl records in lieu of a jukebox or piped-in music. He'll put an album on and just let a whole side play. Anyways, he put this album on and I really liked it -- had to ask him who it was. We ended up having a nice conversation about the resurgence of vinyl.

I don't like every single song on the album, but the ones that are good are outstanding.

I've been seeing that listed on the Most Popular lists at eMusic. Have to check it out. I think I may get Williams's Ghosts of Highway 20. I'm getting used to her current vocal style.

Lucinda fans should check out the new album "Crushing" by Julia Jacklin. She's an Aussie singer/songwriter with a similar style. She's got a "sweeter" voice, and her lyrics are more introspective, but the musical feel is quite similar.

By the way, reading up-thread I see that I mentioned a brewpub that I had then recently discovered. I have since become a regular, to the point where late last summer they actually named a sandwich after me. The place is too far away to be considered my "local," but close enough so that I don't mind going a couple times a week. It's probably a good thing it's not closer, actually, as I'd probably be considerably poorer (and portlier) if it were.

"sweeter voice" is a plus. I haven't cared much for what I've heard of LW's voice in recent years. Some of her mannerisms have become so exaggerated that they're off-putting to me.

That's quite an honor, having a sandwich named after you. Now we need to know more about the sandwich.

I mostly gave up alcohol for Lent, and had already mostly laid off beer to try to lose a few pounds. I *really* want a beer.

The sandwich story: A year or so ago a deli near where I work had a sandwich special they called the "Escobar": it was a fried chicken breast, pepperoni, banana peppers, and pepper jack cheese with mayo on a hamburger roll (someone told me that it was called that because Pablo Escobar liked fried chicken and pepperoni together, but I don't know if that's true). I got the sandwich one day, and thought it was okay, but the guys that cook in the pub where I go are really good at what they do, and I thought they might be able to improve on it. So one night when I was there I talked to one of them and gave him the ingredients, and asked him what he thought. He liked the idea and said he could definitely do something with it. Two or three weeks later it showed up on the weekly special menu in modified form: a grilled, not fried, chicken breast, soppressata instead of pepperoni, house-made banana pepper relish instead of banana pepper rings, jalapeno cheddar instead of pepper jack, and pesto mayo.

About the name...For the first six or seven months I was going there one of the bartenders mistakenly thought my name was Ed. When she found out it was actually Rob, she started calling me EdRob and it stuck. I was very surprised when I saw that that's what they named the sandwich!

As it turned out it was such a good seller during its week on the specials list that they put it on the permanent menu. It's been on there for eight or nine months and it remains their top-selling non-burger sandwich.

Re: Lent and alcohol. I've given it up for Lent a few times over the years, but because I'm a "moderate," social drinker at best, it's not really that much of a sacrifice.

The sandwich sounds delicious. Grilled is definitely an improvement. Not that I don't love fried stuff but it seems overdoing it in that case.

About giving up alcohol: I don't really drink very much at a time. So in a way it wasn't much of a sacrifice. But I had gotten into the habit of having one every night, and was surprised at how much of a strain it was to give that up for the first couple of weeks. I take that as an indication that I did need to break the habit.

"Not that I don't love fried stuff but it seems overdoing it in that case."

Yeah, I thought so too. You can also get it as a burger, which is very good too. I even tried it once as a crab-cake sandwich but in that case the other flavors dominate so much that you lose the taste of the crab.

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