Classic Albums Revisited: How ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ Proved Lucinda Williams is Peerless
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is undeniably Lucinda Williams' most celebrated album, and for good reason: It's the record that elevated her from relative obscurity and years of music industry hard luck and launched her into the realm of mainstream acclaim. It's also the record that showed the world Williams is peerless in her talent.
Released on June 30, 1998, Car Wheels was certified gold and won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Though this was Williams' fifth album in nineteen years, Car Wheels was her first record ever to chart. Critics (who had been Williams' primary audience up until this point) recognized her creative triumph immediately. Rolling Stone's Robert Christgau declared, "Lucinda Williams is too good for this world." It's a statement that still rings true today, 25 years later.
If Car Wheels possess an other-worldly soundscape, Williams' notorious perfectionism is to thank. Remarkably, she spent six years working on the record. Today, that long period of creation has become something of a legend.
She first recorded the album with producer Gurf Morlix but then scrapped the project when it was nearly complete because she was unsatisfied with her vocals. Morlix stepped down, and Williams started over from scratch with Roy Bittan, Steve Earle, and Ray Kennedy. Over the next five years, she went on to record again and again until she found perfection.
Each of those laborious years paid off: Williams had made a bonafide Southern Gothic masterpiece. Songs like "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," "Concrete and Barbed Wire" and "Greenville" weren't just some of Williams' best work to date, but they were a window into the wrenching and wretched soul of the modern American deep south. With the act of giving the world these songs, she also helped birth a new genre.
The ability for today's listeners to hear artists like Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Tyler Childers and Brandi Carlile and without hesitation identify them as "Americana" artists is possible because of Williams and Car Wheels. At the time of its release, Car Wheels may have been hard to categorize, but today it can be seen as the gold standard of Americana albums.
For this, Car Wheels officially pushed Williams into the canon of hallowed American musicians. In a 1997 feature leading up to the album's release, The New York Times compared Williams to Bob Dylan twice for both the characteristics of her voice and her gifts as a storyteller.
It's a comparison that has stuck in the collective consciousness. In 2018, Pitchfork wrote, "Galvanized by Bob Dylan, Williams' songwriting evoked his poetic ambition, Bruce Springsteen's every-people, Joni Mitchell's confessionalism."
These are all high compliments and well-deserved at that. However, when Williams' talent is contextualized by how similar she is to Dylan or Springsteen, Christgau's initial observation feels even more poignant: Lucinda Williams is too good for this world. So good that the world has struggled to conceptualize her as the singular force she is.
Listening to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, it's clear that the only person's poetic ambition Williams has ever evoked is her own.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Track List:
1. "Right in Time"
2. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"
3. "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten"
4. "Drunken Angel"
5. "Concrete and Barbed Wire"
6. "Lake Charles"
7. "Can't Let Go"
8. "I Lost It"
9. "Metal Firecracker"
11. "Still I Long for Your Kiss"