Put me on a desert island, make me create a top 10 list, ask me what I’m going to grab while leaping from a fire and you’ll come up with the same answer: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. It’s right up there in my favorite, all-time anything. Heck, it practically caused my wife to fall in love with me.
Back before my wife was my wife before she was my girlfriend even, we were pals with a predilection for long-distance flirting. I decided to make her a mix tape (for what girl doesn’t love a mix tape?) and included the song “Jackson” from this very Lucinda album we’re discussing. That may seem an odd choice of songs to make a girl like a person, what with the lyrics about not missing the listener when she’s gone, and I suppose it is a little odd. The thing was, there was quite a bit of distance between us at the time and plenty of travel, and anyone can tell that, though the lyrics tell otherwise, the singer is full of nothing but heartbreaking longing.
That mix tape turned out to be the first nudge of the girl who would become my girlfriend who would then become my wife towards becoming all those things. From that one song, she went off and bought other Lucinda Williams albums and has been a fan ever since.
I suspect Car Wheels is an album with a million stories just like that.
The story of the album goes that the record that actually hit the shelves as Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was, in fact, the second version of the album made. It seems, ever the perfectionist, Lucinda recorded the album with her friend Steve Earl, but after a few listens scrapped the whole thing and started completely over. Luckily the master tapes for those original sessions were kept and have been making rounds through bootleg circles ever since.
With the re-release of the final version of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in a two-disk expansion set, I thought I’d visit the original sessions. (And sorry, dear readers, I do not have a copy of this bootleg available to download right now).
While I still have to claim the official album as my favorite version, what landed on the cutting room floor is pretty dang good. I’m really quite surprised she scrapped it in the first place. I’ve paid good money for albums that didn’t sound half this good.
It’s not, in actuality, all that different from what did find its way to the record store shelves. The basic outline for all the songs is here in the original version. The melodies and lyrics are almost identical. The main differences lie in the instrumentation and Lucinda’s vocal delivery.
Where the original version relied heavily on the acoustic guitar, the official version replaces the softer acoustic with the bluesier electric guitar. Lucinda’s vocals are much softer here as well. She sings more straightforwardly, without tons of emotion. It’s a good performance but carries little of the sweat-drenched heartache of the final version.
This is no more apparent than on “Jackson.” The final version is stark in its simplicity and is completely heartbreaking. She sings with such longing that it’s difficult to not fall on your knees weeping after hearing it. Yet in its original form, it’s a much lighter number filled with a fiddle and a two-stepping backbeat. It’s still a beautiful, lovely thing, but completely different in its emotional effect.
“Joy” is the only song that manages to take a completely different turn. Instead of soft acoustics and honky-tonk it throws a curve ball and manages to come out more like snarling funk. It starts with a rolling snake groove and builds into a growl. At just over seven minutes in length, it is the loosest song she’s ever recorded and contains one of the strongest grooves.
There are two additional songs here that didn’t make the final cut on the official version: “Out of Touch,” a Lucinda Williams weeper that found its final resting place in her follow-up album Essence, and “Down the Big Road Blues,” a classic cover song performed like an old Delta bluesman.
It really is a wonderful album in its own right, and though I have to agree with her final decision to recut the entire album, I’m still kind of amazed at what didn’t make it. It’s an incredibly interesting slice of history and some dang fine music for your ears.