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Still, there's no question that Williams's determination to get the tracks right contributed mightily to the late arrival of Car Wheels. She first recorded the songs that wound up on it in 1995 with longtime cohort Murlix only to decide that they weren't vibrant enough. So she re-entered the studio later that year alongside Nashville renegade Steve Earle and his producing partner, Ray Kennedy--an action that eventually caused Morlix to split. (The rest of her band followed shortly thereafter.) The new renditions thrilled everyone who heard them--except Williams, who subsequently recruited keyboardist Roy Bittan of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band to spice them up. By the time she was finally satisfied and assorted record-company red tape was swept aside, she was smack-dab in the middle of 1998. "Even I can't believe how long it took," she says.
The delays would have been even more frustrating had the disc been a bust--but nothing could be further from the truth. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is not only Williams's best-selling release to date, but it's also one of the most critically esteemed recordings of last year--a vivid Southern travelogue brimming with characters who seem to have stepped off the page of a windswept novel into the bright light of day. The title song is a poignant freeway anthem that paints a stirringly vivid portrait of rural America; "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" depicts modern aimlessness in all its slacker glory; "Concrete and Barbed Wire" uses an Appalachian melody to coolly dissect a relationship gone wrong; and "I Lost It" stomps along on the strength of heavy guitar, rich accordion and wry ennui. "I lost it," Williams sings. "Let me know if you come across it."
Couplets like this one may seem effortless, but their grace and economy would not exist were it not for Williams's insistence upon delivering no rhyme before its time. "I had the line 'car wheels on a gravel road' for years," she says, "and some of the other bits and pieces on the album, too. I wasn't really sure where it was all going to go. But I keep a running folder of material, and whenever I get an idea, I throw it in there. I do that with old songs, too--ones that I wrote a long time ago and then thought, well, there's good stuff in here, but it needs to be done better. And at one point, I sat down and pulled out everything that I'd been saving and started going through it to see what would happen. And that's where the muse comes in, I guess. It's hard to explain this stuff without sounding mystical and cerebral, but that's what a lot of it is. I think to be a good songwriter, you have to be able to let go--basically open yourself up and get in touch with your emotions. For me, the whole process is very cathartic and therapeutic. It's an emotionally wrenching experience sometimes, but I think that's a good thing, because it kind of forces you to go back to what you're writing about and deal with it. I think it's important to feel things. It's just like when you cry; it's difficult, but at the same time, it feels good having done it."
With that, Williams laughs. "I shouldn't have to explain this kind of thing to other human beings," she notes. "We're all human. It's part of the human condition. But men as a rule aren't conditioned to connect with their feelings, and there are plenty of women like that, too. It's interesting to go out and play these songs and see the different reactions of people. You can almost tell how closed up some of them are by the way they respond to things. But it's great when you connect with someone, because it makes you feel that there's a purpose to all this. Otherwise, why go out and perform the songs? You might as well just sit on the edge of your bed in your bedroom and sing your songs to yourself."
Lucinda Williams, with Patty Griffin. 9 p.m. Saturday, February 6, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $22.50 in advance/$25 at the door, 303-329-6353.