Lucinda Williams and her loose three-piece band have just kicked into “Right in Time,” the lead-off track to her 1998 breakthrough album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and the venue is, quite literally, rocking. Williams is somewhere in the Atlantic onboard the fourth installment of the Outlaw Country Cruise and as the ship bounces back and forth through some choppy water, the song is proving to be well-suited to the moment, her famously woozy voice matching the vessel’s uneasy sway.
Williams, who turned 66 on Saturday, has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of Car Wheels with a string of shows that find her performing the album in full. This one, in the packed-out Stardust Theater of the Norwegian Pearl, is a little different however. The singer is taking her sweet time with the performance, stopping in between songs to tell stories about the inspiration for the lyrics and the creation of the album. As she spoke and sang, images from her childhood and formative years flashed on a screen above her.
Prior to a crowd-pleasing recreation of the jangly title track, she recalls singing the song at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe with her father in the audience. Afterward, he apologized to Williams, leaving her dumbfounded. “The little girl in the backseat — that was you,” he told her, referencing the “little bit of dirt mixed with tears” lyric. At that point, Williams says, she realized her third-person writing was really about her. “[‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’] was life as seen through a child’s eyes,” she said to the audience. “As it turns out — mine.”
The Monday night album performance wasn’t all self-discovery though. Williams took every opportunity to entertain, particularly on “Drunken Angel.” Her ode to the eccentric and hard-living country songwriter Blaze Foley, the song received an extra dose of roadhouse stomp from Steve Earle, who appeared onstage to play harmonica and sing harmony. Williams introduced the tune as “kinda my hit song,” and seemed amazed at how the legend of Foley has grown, culminating with Ethan Hawke’s biopic starring Ben Dickey last year. But she also said “Drunken Angel” could be about any conflicted artist, from Townes Van Zandt to Kurt Cobain.
Many of the songs on Car Wheels have become cornerstones of Williams’ live sets. But it was the lesser played album tracks that seemed to especially invigorate the songwriter. Chief among them: “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which showcased the idiosyncratic singer’s best vocals of the night. Williams said graffiti and a long-lost photo book about Mississippi juke joints inspired the title and some of the non sequitur lyrics — like “junebug vs. hurricane.” “Do I know what it means?” she said with a wry smile, underscoring how creative inspiration can truly come from anywhere.
The sold-out Outlaw Country Cruise, presented by Sixthman and curated by SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel guru Jeremy Tepper, continues through February 1st with performances by Williams, Margo Price, Steve Earle, Shooter Jennings and more. Williams resumes her own tour with fellow cruisers Drive-By Truckers on February 5th in Charleston, South Carolina.