I loved Car Wheels On A Gravel Road when it came out in 1998. Consequently, I started to seek out other Lucinda Williams albums. I bought the subsequent Essence and World Without Tears, and reached back into her catalog for Happy Woman Blues. What all of these records have in common is Lucinda’s utterly unique and compelling voice. She doesn’t sound like anyone else alive. That voice can conjure up incredible ache, longing, and defiance, no matter what song she’s singing. But even with such vocal magic in action, her earlier and later albums didn’t enchant me the way that Car Wheels did, so this month I assigned it to Robby, in hopes that I could revisit it myself and figure out what makes it so special.

I think the first key is specificity, which works through Car Wheels in several different dimensions. The most noticeable of these is specificity of place. I count fourteen different specific place names on this album, all in the American South. Three of them even serve as song titles — “Lake Charles” (in Louisiana), “Greenville” (in Mississippi), and “Jackson” (in Mississippi). Car Wheels, true to its traveling title, is a virtual travelogue of Louisiana and Mississippi, with occasional forays into Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas. Grounding the album so specifically in a set of related locations gives its stories a ring of authenticity — you feel you’re hearing about the lives of actual people in actual places.

It’s not just place names, though. Another area of specificity is all the mentions of individual musical artists. The couple in “Metal Firecracker” didn’t just listen to music — “We’d put on ZZ Top / And turn ’em up real loud.” In “Lake Charles,” another couple, or maybe the same couple, drives through Lafayette and Baton Rouge, in a yellow El Camino, listening to Howlin’ Wolf. That lyric brings together places and music, just as “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” mentions Rosedale, Mississippi, and then in the next breath invokes Robert Johnson, who immortalized the town in song. The title track’s lyrics mention voices on the radio twice — Loretta and Hank. Thus Car Wheels gives us musical journeys alongside its physical ones, with music deeply integrated into the lives of its characters, so much so that they’re often on a first name basis with icons like Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams.

Album cover of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

That yellow El Camino from “Lake Charles” illuminates another kind of specificity on the album: specific images. Several of the songs give us vivid portraits of the characters’ lives through the use of small, expressive emblems. The words scrawled on the bathroom wall in “2 Kool”: “Is God the answer? Yes”. The watch, earrings, and bracelet in “Right In Time.” The long, smooth guitar neck and shiny strings in “Drunken Angel.” Queen of them all, though, is the song “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” From the first moment, Williams sets a luminous scene:

Sittin’ in the kitchen, a house in Macon
Loretta’s singing on the radio
Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon
Car wheels on a gravel road

Immediately, we’re there — sights, sounds, smells, and even time of day. The images continue through that song — a dusty suitcase, a screen door slamming shut, a low hum of voices in the front seat. Engine parts scattered in a yard with barking dogs. The car traveling past cotton fields, telephone poles, trees, and wires, with a child in the backseat hearing those voices, that music. Even in the deployment of a specific phrase, Williams reveals volumes: “You better do what you’re told / When I get back, this room better be picked up.” Who says that but a mother?

Yet even as specific as those images are, it can be hard to discern what the song’s about. Take them sequentially, though, and a story emerges. We start in that kitchen, but then take the child for a ride, to a house once familiar but now a mess. The narrator retrieves a suitcase, and reveals herself as a mother. That mother is traveling to Jackson with the kid, the Southern landscape flying by. She arrives at a broken-down house, and the child is weeping. And between each moment, we return to the chorus of the song and its central image: the car wheels, the gravel road.

I hear a story of a woman who has decided to leave her old life and seek a new one, taking her child with her. It’s like a prequel to the Pretenders song “Thumbelina” — “What’s important in this life? / Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”

And there we have the other bright thread weaving through this album: loss. There are a number of songs on Car Wheels that don’t invoke particular places or artists, but what those songs provide indelibly are powerful emotions of yearning, grief, and loneliness. Again, the titles tell a tale: “I Lost It”, “Can’t Let Go”, “Still I Long For Your Kiss”. The languid sensuality of “Right In Time” is inextricable from the lover’s absence. She takes everything off, moans at the ceiling, but in the end all she can do is reach over and turn off the light. The nostalgia in “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles” stands in sharp relief against the deaths of their subjects.

That’s a template for several other songs, with the difference being it’s a relationship that has died. “Metal Firecracker” reminisces about a wild intimacy, but circles back to a heartbroken plea: “All I ask… Don’t tell anybody the secrets / I told you”. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is even more plaintive: “I had a lover / I thought he was mine / Thought I’d always be / his Valentine”.

And of course, it keeps coming back to the title track, where indeed a relationship has died. We feel that pain keenly in specific places, through specific music, lit by specific images, until it winds up in the single image that sums up the whole album: “Little bit of dirt, mixed with tears”.

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