CD Review of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams

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Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
starstarstarstarno star Label: Mercury
Released: 2006
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Lucinda Williams was already known as a songwriter’s songwriter by the time she recorded Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – think a crankier John Hiatt, with breasts – but to say she’d had difficulty selling records on her own would be an understatement. Only her fifth album in a 19-year span, Wheels arrived six years after its predecessor, and though commercial travails weren’t completely to blame for the hiatus, they were definitely part of the problem.

Also slowing the process was Williams’ perfectionism. She tinkered endlessly with the album, tossing aside producers and songs alike, and ultimately recording three separate versions of what was to become Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She was rewarded for her efforts, of course; not only did the album crack the top half of Billboard’s Top 200, it won a Grammy, thus elevating Williams to the commercial ranks of briefly trendy artists such as Shawn Colvin, Shelby Lynne, and Paula Cole.

Wheels deserved its success, of course; it seems a little strange to think that an album this raw and ragged was the product of so much calculation, but as both a career statement and a roots-rock record, it’s a rare example of the zeitgeist dovetailing with a songwriter’s artistic apogee. Hence this double-disc, remastered ‘n’ expanded edition, which beefs up the original’s sound a bit, adds a few bonus tracks, and tacks on a 13-song live set.

It bears mentioning that even for fans of this genre – Americana, or, or whatever you want to call it – Williams may be something of an acquired taste. Her ruminations on her peripatetic, divorce-scarred childhood in the title track are finely drawn, but whether the title’s seemingly endless repetitions strike you as the deepening of a groove, or just really fucking annoying, will have a lot to do with your appetite for Williams’ tortured, adenoidal howl. The good news, for those of you who fall into the latter camp – not to mention for Williams’ retirement portfolio – is that there’s no shortage of more, shall we say, traditional voices performing her songs; if Car Wheels doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Mary Chapin Carpenter to take the edge off.

~Jeff Giles