The other morning I walked into a Whole Foods in Portland, OR. My boyfriend’s band was leaving town and I made a split decision to accompany them on their final stop rather than say my goodbyes at the hotel. As I entered the store I immediately heard a familiar tune over the loudspeaker. It was “Can’t Let Go” by Lucinda Williams from my favorite album of all time, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, which turns 20 tomorrow. It’s the album I’d planned to go back to the hotel and write about and it’s the first Lucinda song I ever heard, when I was 15. It felt like a good omen and a moment of blunt lucidity. A 20-year-old song about the coarsest moment of a woman’s heartache, written with such engaging specificity, sung with such vulnerability playing over the loudspeaker as people buy kale and kombucha on a Wednesday morning in Portland. Time passed. Bodies moved quickly through the aisles. I quietly sang all the words to myself and bought yogurt and toothpicks.
When I heard “Can’t Let Go” for the first time I didn’t know how to feel about it. I grew up in Alabama and in my early teens I was abruptly swept into punk. Country music was for my parents. A family friend, who was very excited about my sister Allison and my adolescent foray into music-making, made us each a mixtape of women songwriters he thought we might find inspiring. Lucinda’s “Can’t Let Go” was right in the middle of the sequence. I remember it confused and intrigued me.
At the time my taste in music was rigid and self-evident and without much depth. The fact that the genre wasn’t immediately recognizable kept me indecisive about it. The essence of Lucinda’s music really settles into that grayness. Her voice is gritty and lived-in but also so delicate. Her words are simple, her phrases are short but they fill you up juxtaposing truth and fable. She’s country but she’s blues but she’s alternative but she’s pop. All these contradictions that confused my underdeveloped music-loving mind are actually what make her so singular. It took me years to see that.
In this life of music fandom, we enthusiasts strive for the ultimate reward as a music-lover. This is, of course, finding the album that you can’t stop playing, the album that is the only source of relief in your day, the album that becomes your life. I’ve been blessed by this anomaly many times. When people say “That album changed my life” or “That album saved my life,” I believe this type of immersive enthusiasm is the phenomenon they’re referring to. It’s why music is so powerful; to me there is no other medium of art that one can return to so frequently or continue absorbing and engaging without getting burned out or bored. Sometimes, you find a record and it feels like you found your new best friend.
I’ve never experienced this type of infatuation with an album more than I have with Car Wheels. Truly, from the moment the first track “Right In Time” kicked in I just understood it. It felt like the cultivation of so many conflicting ideas, so many contradictions that swirled around inside my mind all pieced together with an effortless impeccability. I had been writing songs myself for about 10 years at that point and I’d always passively wrestled with my identity as an artist. I couldn’t fully step into my own agency. All of Lucinda’s contradictions, the genre-lessness, the grayness, those features always made me feel clumsy or self-conscious when I heard it in my own songwriting. It made me anxious.
Exploring all the corners of influence, making something authentic, letting it not take a discernible shape people can easily name, all of that took courage that I found hard to summon. When I discovered Car Wheels I fully realized how powerful it can be to embrace the contradictions and the unknown because that is the only path to making something that is truly original. I learned that from Lucinda.
I recently read the classic New Yorker article “Delta Nights“, written by Bill Buford in 2000. In it he studies Lucinda closely. He studies her relationships with her boyfriend at the time and her father. He goes on a pilgrimage of the Delta, searching for juke joints he’s heard about in her songs. He picks up on her anxieties and her idiosyncrasies. He explores the possibility that she’s self-mythologizing. It’s beautifully if not tawdrily detailed. I found myself captivated by the backstories of the songs and even more so by how much of a mystery Lucinda remained after all that context and face time with the writer.
Buford presents her as he sees her, flaws included, and it’s a divinely unglamorous portrait. In it, Lucinda is rebellious and unlucky and deeply enigmatic, writing about a life we feel like we’ve lived, giving us the gift of feeling like we aren’t alone. Even the title of this album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, is so idyllic in its bluntness and exactitude. You could be an adult in New York City and those words still evoke some kind of nostalgia or association. That really speaks to the heart of her method as a songwriter — she puts you right in the middle of her experience. She honed that method so masterfully on Car Wheels and the lyrical precision on top of some of her best melodies made it her masterpiece.
The album was famously (and dramatically) produced by three people (hire, fire, then hire someone new) including Steve Earle. All the stories I’ve ever heard or read about the making of the album are tense and wild and exciting. Many clichés about the ambiguous process of a “genius” come into play at some point. Stress levels were high, perfectionism was rampant. In the 1997 New York Times article “Lucinda Williams Is In Pain,” writer Darcy Frey quotes Lucinda saying: “A million people could tell me this album’s great, and it won’t matter if I don’t feel that way in my gut.” The article also astutely compares her to Bob Dylan and Raymond Carver.
Car Wheels took years of paying close attention to detail and dodging label execs and burning bridges with longtime collaborators to make. From what I gather, people close to Lucinda felt like it might never be finished. It’s fascinating to me as a songwriter to hear stories like these. The commitment to a vision outweighing everything else.
Being an artist is double-edged. Making something out of thin air that others will take in and connect with is like having a magical power. You get a lot out of it, making people feel something and making yourself feel something, too. Being consumed by the vision, the calling of the eye, is sometimes the flip-side. For some I imagine it’s manageable and for others it takes every fiber of your being and every thought in your head to finish making the thing.
In the case of Car Wheels, especially in the context of her previous albums, you hear just how big Lucinda’s vision was. It took years to make but Lucinda made it perfect. She committed. She knew exactly what she was doing, taking heartache and poetry and Howlin’ Wolf and death and the South and turning it into something people still listen to obsessively 20 years later. As a songwriter with some parallels with Lucinda, two women from the Deep South, it makes me emotional to think about what she did just in making this album. It’s everything I ever set out to. It’s proof it can be done.
Hearing Car Wheels out in public got me thinking a bit about Lucinda’s legacy amongst those who don’t write music. I know people in a crowded center city Whole Foods aren’t exactly there for the music, but the stark setting did leave me wondering where Lucinda sits at the table of the greats in songwriting. The concept of a “songwriter’s songwriter,” a person who other great songwriters revere but maybe never fully got their due from the general public, comes to mind. I think of Townes Van Zandt or Jason Molina, titans who made magic as they battled demons. Those don’t quite feel like appropriate comparisons to Lucinda, though. She certainly is a songwriter’s songwriter, that’s a definite, but to me she’s at the table with the people unanimously understood as the greats. Maybe she’s overlooked there because people don’t know exactly where to place her, but she’s there and she’s still going.