PRINT November 1998


Lucinda Williams

YOU CAN’T DEPEND ON ANYTHING, REALLY. Knowing that line from Lucinda Williams’s new album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, you know the whole thing—except, of course, the details, which count. You need to hear, for example, that the woman these songs describe used to listen to ZZ Top real loud. You need to hear that the eggs-and-bacon-perfumed kitchen of her childhood was in Macon, and that her friend from Lake Charles really came from Nacogdoches. Also, that all she now hopes for from the old lover she listened to ZZ Top with is that he’ll respect her privacy; that the man from Lake Charles is dead; and that the sound of tires on the road near that house in Macon has imprinted her with some heavy burden of memory, an aural and American version of the Proustian madeleine.

Speaking of Proust, the French have a phrase—actually they have a great many, but the one I’m thinking of is la France profonde, “deep France,” a kind of core heartland, more mental than geographic, both provincial and, well, profound. With Car Wheels on a Gravel Road we are in deep America. That, for Williams—a songwriter of painstaking precision, who spent six years making this record—is a near timeless South, to be evoked through concise language and a weighty, blues-steeped country guitar sound. Also in the music is a sweeping American pop—the melody of “Metal Firecracker,” for instance, is just luscious, much like Williams’s ten-year-old “Passionate Kisses” (a hit for someone else).

With bravura gutsiness, Williams opens the album on a high note of erotic longing, singing the word Oh in “Right in Time” like an adult Ronette. It’s intoxicating even as you recognize that the man she’s talking to isn’t there. Put Car Wheels alongside Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball and Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs as a naked account of the toughening injuries a woman accumulates growing older in deep America.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.