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Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Lucinda Williams.
1998, Mercury Records. Producers: Roy Bittan, Steve Earle, Ray Kennedy, Lucinda Williams.
IN A NUTSHELL: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams, is 13 songs about love and life sung by a voice with the heart and soul to match the emotional depth of its lyrics. I call it a country record, as it has the twang and pedal steel and world-weariness one expects of the genre, but I got into it because of its rock ‘n roll heart. Williams paints pictures of the jubilance of life, even when it’s found in heartache and loss.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
So I guess by this point, 84 albums into my list of my 100 favorite, plus a handful of others I somehow missed, it’s pretty easy to see where my tastes in music lie. There’s not a whole heckuva lot of variety. A tiny bit of soul, a hard rock album or two, a bit of retro garage rock, a dash of prog rock, some Rush, some Steely Dan and an odd jazz/dance hybrid. Besides those records, the list has pretty much been pop/rock 101: guitar/drums/bass with catchy melodies, the basic template set down, then expanded upon, by The Beatles.
I decided early on that my list was going to be confined to the rock/pop genre. The reason for this is pretty simple: I don’t listen to a whole lot else. Well, that’s not exactly true. What’s true is that I’m not invested in other types of music like I am with rock/pop. I like some stuff from other musical genres, but I’ve never felt the urge to dive in deeply, to compare artists and albums, and really consider the creativity and drive that goes into other musical types. Other than rock, I’m quite sure I couldn’t even name 100 albums in any genre.
But I do have favorites! So why don’t I do a little rundown of some of my favorite albums in non-rock categories? I’m by no means an expert in any of these categories – these are just albums I like.
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis. From talking to some folks who are jazz aficionados – at a couple parties, at a record store[ref]A record store was a store that sold records. (Records were physical items that contained songs to listen to, like if tracks on Spotify or Tidal were packaged on a thin disc that you’d put into a machine to listen to.)[/ref], at a concert or two – I understand that this album has been a victim of its own success, an obvious selection akin to picking “Yesterday” as your favorite Beatles song. But damn, “Yesterday” is a fine song! I’ve listened to Kind of Blue a million times and I still love it.
Criss-Cross, Thelonious Monk. This record floored me with its oddly beautiful piano sounds coupled with driving, complex rhythms. I haven’t heard the Thelonious Monk recording yet that I haven’t enjoyed. I found his sound so unique and inspiring that I named my kid after him!
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and “Posthorn” Serenade. Sir Charles Makkeras Prague Chamber Orchestra. There is no genre of music on which I am a less-credible source of appreciation and information than Classical Music. It can sound boring to me, and even when I try to concentrate on it, I find that invariably it somehow morphs into background music for my asinine thoughts about baseball players, funny 80s movies, Columbo plots and The Beatles. However, I do own a few classical records, and this is the one I usually pull out if I’m going to play something. I like Mozart. I don’t think he has too many notes. A relative who has classical music bone fides told me this version by the Prague Chamber Orchestra is the best version, so I took his word for it and bought it.
Three Feet High and Rising. De La Soul. Other than Classical, there is no genre of music on which I am a less-credible source of appreciation and information than Hip-Hop. My Hip-Hop appreciation was a bloom on the Century Plant of popular music, briefly appearing, only to go dormant for generations to come. De La Soul’s clever, twisted Three Feet High and Rising sounded like 60s hippies took over a recording studio, which meant song after song that I could hum along to.
The Low End Theory, by A Tribe Called Quest, was similar to Three Feet High and Rising in that it sounded like nothing else that I’d heard to that point – except for the jazz that it sampled. These samples created a smooth yet funky sound that warranted repeated listenings. I liked the three personalities in the act. Plus, they introduced the world to Busta Rhymes.
Landscape of Ghosts. Rob Siegel. It was Louis Armstrong himself who said, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” I find folk music hard to categorize, it can cover so much. Plus I don’t listen to it much on record – I much prefer to see it performed live, as it’s such a personal style of music. And my favorite performer is Rob Siegel, whose recent Landscape of Ghosts is the rare folk record I’ll sit and listen to.
Funky Kingston. Toots and the Maytals. I saw Toots and the Maytals live about 8 years ago, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen. He was about 70 years old, and he danced and sang and had the crowd in a frenzy. He was like the James Brown of Reggae. So I bought a bunch of his records, and this is the one I like the best. It includes the title track, “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop,” and my favorite, “Sailin’ On.”
Ghana Special: Modern Highlife & Ghanian Blues 1968-81. Okay, okay, I know even less about Ghana Highlife music than I do Classical or Hip-Hop. I heard a song by Nigerian musician Sir Victor Uwaifo on a Sirius XM Radio show hosted by Julian Casablancas. This sent me down a rabbit hole of African guitar pop music from the 60s and 70s, and I found this compilation album. I know compilation albums are ineligible, but songs like Kai Wawa and Sei Nazo are so good, I had to include it.
Here Come the ABC’s and Here Come the 123’s. They Might Be Giants. Kids music can be really, really annoying, but when you’re a parent and you see your kid so happy listening and dancing to, say The Wiggles, you let it slide. TMBG, though, released kids’ albums that adults could love. Songs about letters and numbers (and more numbers!) that sounded a lot like the songs they always made for adults.
Comedy isn’t music (usually), I understand that, but it’s a type of album I love! Here are a few tied for #1 favorite all time: Shame-Based Man, by Bruce McCulloch. Class Clown, by George Carlin. Strategic Grill Locations, by Mitch Hedberg. Rant in E Minor, by Bill Hicks. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart.
So, what do you notice about all those records? (Besides the fact that for someone who likes music enough to write about it, I sure do have a limited appreciation of the subject.) Do you notice there are no Country & Western albums? This may appear to be an oversight, until you notice that I’m now writing about the fact that there aren’t any Country & Western records on the list, proving it’s not an oversight. The simple reason for its exclusion is this: I dislike Country & Western music.
Okay, okay, that’s a pretty broad statement. The fact is, one of the albums on my list, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison[ref]This is one of my favorite write-ups, although (as with everything I write) it could have used an editor, for sure.[/ref], is a straight-up Country & Western album. But unlike the white guy at a Trump rally who offers proof of his lack of bigotry by pointing out he works “with a Latin guy,” I’m aware of my biases. And I’m biased against Country music.
I’ve been called an idiot, obstinate, pointed out as a hypocrite for holding uninformed opinions while at the same time chastising others who are willfully ignorant. And I plead guilty to all of these charges. I am well-aware of the fact that my dislike of Country & Western music has nothing to do with the music itself, and everything to do with me and my perceptions.
Sure, I admit, I enjoyed Hee-Haw as a boy in the 70s. Hee-Haw was sort of the dumb cousin to the hip, smart Laugh-In that made my parents laugh so much. I didn’t always “get” Laugh-In back then, but the simple jokes, silly songs and scantily-clad women of Hee-Haw were easily understood by an 8 year-old boy like me. By the time I was about 10, I couldn’t stand its formulaic, obvious yuk-yuks anymore.
The show really played up the “down-home” nature of the Country-Western lifestyle, which I read (and continue to read) as “stupid.” “Down-home”-ness is characterized by a willingness to be willfully obtuse, to cling to the past in a way that seems childish, and to reject learning and education. It values the “simple wisdom” of lessons learned from family, from church and in the field – as opposed to, you know, from research and study. “It was below 0 for two days. What happened to ‘Global Warming’?” is an example of “simple wisdom.” Or “stupidity.”
What I failed to realize about Hee-Haw, however, was that its hosts, Buck Owens and – particularly – Roy Clark, were terrific musicians! Buck Owens wrote songs for Ray Charles and others, was name-checked by John Fogerty, and had 21 no. 1 Country hits[ref]Which, given my dislike of Country & Western means very little to me, but still, 21 is a large number. Grudgingly, I’d admit that’s impressive, equivalent to having 2 pop/rock no. 1 records.[/ref]. And Roy Clark … well, just watch the following link: Roy Clark is friggin’ amazing. Spend time finding Roy clark guitar videos; you won’t be disappointed. (By the way, Clark passed away just a couple weeks ago.)
The point is that the music is separate from whatever “down home,” and other objectionable culture surrounds the music. I should really be able to de-link my appreciation of the music from all the other bullshit. And I keep trying. I’ve been listening to the Outlaw Country station on Sirius/XM radio sometimes. I continue to love Johnny Cash. I thought I was making progress. I was challenged a few years ago by a friend on my lack of appreciation of Country music, and I brought up the fact that I love Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
I was informed that “That’s not Country!!” And the truth is, I first heard a song from the album on a San Francisco rock radio[ref]”Radio” was a thing that played music that somebody else picked out for you, whether you liked the songs or not.[/ref] station in 1998. At that point I’d have immediately rejected anything I thought was “Country.” I was around 30, feeling old, and trying to stay connected to rock music. I bought great albums by Radiohead and Cornershop around that time, and when I heard “Can’t Let Go,” from Lucinda Williams, I went out and bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, too.
It’s got a finger-picking intro with a strong backbeat, then a second guitar enters. In all, three guitars end up bouncing between the speakers as Williams’ sultry voice stings of a love she can’t leave behind. Throughout the album, Williams voice – its phrasing, its many colors – is the star. I love her little subtleties, like in the second verse where she hangs onto the “sh” sound in “feel like I been shot and didn’t fall down.” And I love the guitars. Around 1:44, there’s a slide guitar solo that becomes a slide guitar duet, and it’s terrific.
The song once again features great guitar. This time four guitarists appear, including Steve Earle (on Resonator Guitar), Gurf Morlix, Johnny Lee Schell and Bo Ramsay. The four guitars are a reflection of Williams’s reported perfectionism, her desire to achieve a final product that meets her high standards – characteristics not appreciated by everyone. But spending time and money on a song as simple as “Joy” (I think there’s only one chord in the entire song?) to achieve this final product is okay by me. The fabulous solos after the choruses (1:20, 2:09, 3:02) are alone worth all the studio heartache!
In addition to the guitars, I really love Lucinda’s lyrics. She has a gift of conjuring in the listener’s mind a time and place, and many of these scenes are familiar to me. She grew up in Southern U.S. college towns in the 60s; I grew up in rural PA in the 70s; but there are experiences that we seem to have shared, as heard on the title track.
It’s a song whose lyrics evoke memories of my childhood – we even had a sort-of-gravel road adjacent to our home. When you’re a child, events have little context so the memories are purely experiential. Breakfast cooking, going for a car ride to some other town, views from car windows, crying in the backseat. There’s no reason why, it all just happened. The melody is catchy and cries out to be sung by the listener, which has the effect of instilling those lyrics in one’s brain, which makes them all the more like ingrained childhood memories.
As with the childhood memories of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten” brings forth thoughts of warm nights of young adulthood, meeting folks at a bar with no place to be.
Williams used words from real signs she saw in real bars to create a mood, and the subtle dual guitars beautifully help to set the scene. It’s got a relaxed groove, and the slight guitar solo around 2:40 sounds nice. The guitars throughout the album are deliciously subtle. On “Drunken Angel,” a tribute to Country artist Blaze Foley (and other lost-soul musicians) they chime like R.E.M. On “Lake Charles,” a song about long-held desires, guitars twang and twirl and mix with accordion sweetly. The harmonies on this song tug at one’s heart, as well.
It sounds like Country music to me. Take the song “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” a valentine to a loved one in prison.
This is a song that could make me love Country and Western music. Williams’s voice is made for this type of sad lament. And the song is built so that with each verse a new instrument is added. It begins with a simple acoustic guitar and voice. Electric slide guitar is added, drums enter with bass, then accordion, and pretty soon the song’s sadness has somehow become uplifting. It lets me know why folks might love a Country Western song – that melding of emotions. The song “Greenville,” on which country superstar Emmylou Harris sings harmony, is another sad country song, this time about a man that done her wrong, that inspires. It’s a song about a place, as many songs on the album are. “Jackson” is in the same vein, this time about the many places she hopes to go to escape her heartache. It’s also sad and beautiful.
Lyrically, Williams usually laments the lost loves. But she does take time to honor the good love in the warm, celebratory “Right In Time.”
Her voice is sensual, expressive and the twangy acoustic and ringing 12-string guitars behind it provide a reverberating light that keeps the song from getting mushy. The lyrics are a bit risqué, perhaps, but more Leo-Sayer-ish than Prince-like. But in “Still I Long for Your Kiss” she’s back to missing what she used to have.
But even though she’s often sad about the past, she never sounds particularly regretful. In the terrific “Metal Firecracker,” on top of more great guitar, she knows things have changed but she just wants to know her secrets are safe. And in “I Lost It,” she’s confused and hurt, but doesn’t seem to have regrets.
This is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love how the instruments blend, and the harmony vocal, by Jim Lauderdale, is great. It’s a fun song to belt along to in the car, and lots of fun to play in a band. There’s a lilting accordion providing a bit of sadness, but Williams’s voice and spirit make the song’s demand seem strong, not weak.
So is this a Country and Western album? Strangely enough, it won a Grammy in 1998 – for BEST FOLK ALBUM! Really? Who’d’ve thought? I don’t know what genre it is. I’m going to keep calling it Country because it sounds Country to me. But what does it matter what any genre an album falls into? I love the music that I love, so I’ve decided I won’t ever say “I hate Country and Western” again. I love music. I love Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
“Right in Time”
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
“2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten”
“Concrete and Barbed Wire”
“Can’t Let Go”
“I Lost It”
“Still I Long for Your Kiss”