PAIN IS NOT THE POINT: REFLECTIONS ON THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD


I’ve been on the road with Lucinda Williams ever since I can remember. On the long California highways of my childhood, she was always coming through the speakers. She is the one I want to listen to now, driving those same Louisiana roads that wind through so many of her songs. I’ve come to understand that when you listen to Lucinda Williams, you have to be ready to go wherever it is she wants to take you. Her music comes on strong, she says what’s on her mind, and she is not a woman who will meet you halfway when she’s singing her truth. “Could tell a lie but my heart would know,” she sings on the eponymous song of the album that put her squarely on the map of American music for the first time in an already long career. When Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out in 1998, Lucinda was 45 years-old, a seasoned fighter in the age-old struggle between art and industry. Although her exceptional talent has always earned her die-hard supporters in the music world, it took decades to get a real record deal. Los Angeles producers scrunched their nose at her “country” sound. In Nashville her music was too rock’n’roll. It wasn’t until Rough Trade, a small British punk label, took a chance on a woman who refused to fit herself into anyone else’s vision and put out her first studio album, 1992’s Lucinda Williams.

Lucinda Williams’ unwillingness to make even the smallest concession when it comes to her music has been a favorite subject of music journalists ever since “Lucinda Williams Is in Pain” was published in the New York Times in 1997. The man who wrote the article, Darcy Frey, flew out to Los Angeles to watch as Lucinda put the finishing touches on Car Wheels, an album six years in the making.

The way he tells it, the final days of recording the album were practically a hostage situation. In the article, an anxious, insecure, and emotionally turbulent Lucinda torments her studio musicians, who weather the storm like men “under siege” as she restlessly searches for the perfect sound. Though he is admiring of her musical talent, Frey takes Lucinda to task for the perfectionism that caused her to re-record the album three different times with three different producers—first with longtime guitarist Gurf Morlix, then with alternative country legend Steve Earle, and finally with Roy Bittan, known for playing with Springsteen’s E Street Band. “There’s something undeniably lunatic about replacing lead instrumentals just days before an album is due,” Frey writes, “but Williams won’t be dissuaded, turning the studio into a guitarists’ convention as she searches for the right balance between electric and acoustic; rock, country and blues.”

Lucinda has objected to this telling of the Car Wheels story loudly and often throughout her career. She likes to tell people who bring it up that “you can’t praise the work and criticize the process.” As she explains in a recent piece in Billboard Magazine commemorating the 20th anniversary of the album, “I made the mistake of allowing a journalist from either the New Yorker or the New York Times into the studio. He didn’t understand the usual routine of recording in that you don’t always use everything you got… That’s just part of the process. But combine that with the fact that I was recutting everything in the studio, which people do a lot anyway, and suddenly it became my Achilles Heel. I’ll never live that down.” A character study of a woman come undone, this was her first major music profile, and the “Lucinda Williams is in pain” narrative has followed her ever since. Even now, the difficulties of the recording process remain the focus of most of the coverage coming out for this anniversary, from Billboard Magazine to Rolling Stone.

Lucinda Williams may be in pain, but who isn’t? Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is so raw that sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but it is also very finely wrought. I’ve never known anyone in the middle of a nervous breakdown to produce something as perfect as that album. The subtleties get clearer every time you listen to it, making it impossible to stomach a narrative that the process of its creation can be reduced to a continuous fit of feminine hysterics.

The first time I listened to Car Wheels I was nine years-old, being raised by three people in two different households with very little in common besides the fact that they all had the good sense to love Lucinda. Her music threads through my earliest memories. I must have been four or five when my mother first slid 1992’s Sweet Old World into the tape deck of our dusty blue Ford Taurus. On long car trips I begged her to play it again and again.

In the early ‘90s, Lucinda Williams lovers were few and far between, but in the short time they were married, my mother and father both had a chiropractor named John Ciambotti, who also happened to be Lucinda’s bass player. “She’s a genius and you should watch out for her,” Ciambotti urged my father. He did just that. “I played a lot of Lucinda Williams while I was going through the divorce with your mom,” my father tells me now.

By the time Car Wheels came out, my sister and I knew the words to every song Lucinda had ever recorded. Our family proceeded to listen to Car Wheels on repeat. It played on Saturday mornings while my stepfather cleaned the house and after school on weekday evenings as my mother cooked dinner. Every time I heard it, I gleaned more of what Lucinda Williams had to teach me about what it meant to be a woman in this world.

At 30, I am still learning her lessons. Her music has always taught me to want feverishly, to demand the slaking of many thirsts, nevermind the heartache that always seems to come with them. She taught me to love the Louisiana that lies outside of New Orleans, with its small towns, long highways, and tragic heroes that too often die by their own hand—in drunken bar fights or from too much hard living.

These days, though, under intensifying external pressure to compromise my own vision, my own sense of what’s true, I think most often about her commitment to telling the stories she wants to tell, in exactly the way she understands them. No matter how honest I think I am as a writer, Lucinda’s music always reminds me I can still go deeper, speak more bravely.

“I played a lot of Lucinda Williams while I was going through the divorce with your mom,” my father tells me now.

I am not alone. In Stereogum Magazine’s “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road Turns 20,” Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield talks about how terrifying it can be to hold your own work to the mirror of Lucinda’s music. “I’d always passively wrestled with my identity as an artist,” Crutchfield confesses. “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.” Anyone who has engaged in the agonizing process of making honest art knows just how much work it takes; to me the lengths she went to in perfecting Car Wheels are nothing short of heroic.

Darcy Frey’s New York Times profile may have had her all wrong, but it does offer a few telling insights into what those heroics look like on the ground. The most interesting of them comes when he writes about her struggle to find the right sound for “Lake Charles,” one of the most popular songs on the album. “Lake Charles” is a sad and sweet eulogy for a man born in East Texas, but “liked to tell everybody he was from Lake Charles… cause that’s the place he loved.” The lyrics are a poetry masterclass, painting an intricate portrait of her lost love from East Texas and the Louisiana roads they liked to travel together. From Frey’s article, it is obvious that Lucinda couldn’t rest until she found a sound that could match them. Frey writes about her long hours of trying every conceivable option—slide guitar, new riffs, more rhythm—rejecting one idea after another. When at last she excitedly suggested they try adding an accordion, the weary studio musicians were in luck. Roy Bittan knew how to play; he had an ex-wife from Baton Rouge and had spent time in Louisiana. His plaintive accordion proved to be exactly what Lucinda felt the song was missing.

If I hadn’t spent most of the last decade in Louisiana, I might also have trouble understanding why she couldn’t give up looking for that final piece. Without the accordion, the song is gorgeous. Before the accordion appears in the second verse, her distinctive voice weaves seamlessly into the plaintive twang of the lead guitar and the gentle vocal harmonies, and the song sounds exactly right. But “Lake Charles” is the story of a love affair between a man and Louisiana, a love that is stronger even than death. “Now his soul is in Lake Charles,” she sings, “no matter what they say.” When the accordion comes in a third of the way through, it brings Louisiana into focus. It is not the accordion of zydeco or Cajun folk songs—it is soft and unobtrusive—but it gives a melodic reminder of Louisiana’s deep musical well, a layer the song can’t do without.

Lucinda’s exactitude may have caused Gurf Morlix to end their friendship permanently, and left Steve Earle wanting to “never produce girls” again, as he put it in a radio interview in which he was widely misquoted as saying Car Wheels was “the least amount of fun I’ve had working on a record.” (They have long since reconciled.) But not all her collaborators felt that way. Emmylou Harris—whose haunting harmonies on “Greenville” and “Jackson” are the same kind of secret ingredient as the accordion on “Lake Charles”—speaks admiringly when asked about working with Lucinda on the album.

In a conversation between the two of them recorded in a 1997 BOMB Magazine article, right before the release of Car Wheels, Emmylou Harris had yet to hear the rest of the album, but loved the songs she worked on and commented in particular on how elegantly the lyrics in “Jackson” intertwined with its simple melody: “I think it’s a masterpiece. I think that about just about everything Lucinda’s written. But the thing about that particular song, when I saw the words on the page, I didn’t quite get the song. And I realize now it’s like a haiku poem. The words are so incredibly stripped down and simple. And then you hear the melody, which is also simple. That’s what song writing is for me. When the words shimmer with the melody in the right way, then it’s just Nirvana.”

After you’ve listened to these songs it comes as no surprise that Lucinda Williams is so fastidious about her music; music itself is the subject of most of them. In Car Wheels, the car radio is always on. Ill-fated lovers on Louisiana roads listen to Howlin’ Wolf in “Lake Charles” and ZZ Top in “Metal Firecracker.” In the title track, a gritty tribute to a Southern childhood, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams are singing on the radio, and she calls them by their first names. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is an ode to the juke joints and blues bars of the Mississippi Delta, and the legendary musicians (like Robert Johnson) who played them.

Most of all, there is music in the men she loves. In “Greenville,” she sings a sorrowful goodbye to a man who loves too rough to love her. She cannot forgive the “empty bottles and broken glass,” the “busted down doors and borrowed cash,” nor can she love someone that’s “out all night, playing in a band, looking for a fight with a guitar in your hand.” The way Lucinda sings it, when he throws a punch with one hand while holding a guitar in the other, he is desecrating something holy. For Lucinda Williams, to betray the music is to betray yourself.

“Drunken Angel,” a song about the life and violent death of Blaze Foley, is a variation on the same theme. “Why’d you have to let go of your guitar?” she asks. “Why’d you have to let it go that far?” Hurray For the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra does a beautiful acoustic version of this song; her deep, resonant voice carries its anguish exquisitely, leaving you in mourning for a man you’ve never met. But in Lucinda’s version, there is as much anger as sadness. Both the rhythm and the electric guitar are strident, and her rough voice sings of this loss with rage and regret. When she says, “you could’ve held onto that long, smooth neck, let your hand remember every fret, fingers touching each shiny string, but you let go of everything,” it is a desperate admonishment; music is a lifeline that must never be released.

With the stakes so high, what choice did she have but to take the making of this album as seriously as she did? In her world, to stay true to music is to resist the seduction of death. And for all the characters in Car Wheels who take the short, painful road to perdition, Lucinda herself is never one of them. The last verse of “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” says it best. She and her lover are standing on a Lake Charles bridge, looking over the water, flirting with the edge as they flirt with each other. “He asked me ‘do you want to jump into the water with me?’” she sings; and without skipping a beat, replies: “I told him no way, baby, that’s your own death you see.”

Lucinda Williams is in pain, but Lucinda Williams wants to live. She wants to wrap the bleeding world in her arms and slow dance. There is room in those arms for all of it, the love and the grief, the concrete and the barbed wire, the fallen angels and the sweet songs they leave behind. If Lucinda Williams is in pain, it is because she has the courage to keep on loving a world that keeps on letting her down. She has never let go of her own guitar, she has never let it go that far. After all these years, this is the part of her music that has given me the most.

When I too am in pain, I play this album again and again, until a promise hangs in the air between Lucinda and me, mingling with the music. I promise to stay in this life as long as I can, to keep being a part of it all, to never stop trying to see the world through the soft eyes of a lover, even through the blood, the shit, and the loss of those I don’t think I can live without. 


Lucinda Williams will be performing Saturday, April 6 at The House of Blues as part of the 20th anniversary tour of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. For more info, visit lucindawilliams.com.


illustration Victoria Allen