Lucinda Williams had been knocking around the music business for two decades by the time she released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in the summer of 1998. By that point she had released four other solo albums, but she was still best known as the writer behind the Mary Chapin Carpenter hit “Passionate Kisses.” It was a time when country was going in an aggressively pop direction thanks to the enormous success of Shania Twain’s Come On Over, and Top 40 was just beginning to be consumed by the likes of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
It wasn’t a great environment for an under-the-radar alt-country album chronicling the bitter dissolution of a relationship, but the songs on Car Wheels were so undeniably brilliant that the world was forced to take notice. The album never went higher than Number 65 on the Billboard 200, but the reviews were rapturous and it won her a huge following that has stayed with her to this day. The album is now widely seen as one of the single best albums of the 1990s. As Williams got ready to celebrate Car Wheels with a 20th anniversary tour, which kicks off tonight, she phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the live show, the album’s difficult birth, her in-progress memoir and the status of her next record.
What can you tell me about these Car Wheels anniversary shows?
We are trying to get as many people as we can that played on the album. Roy Bittan from the E Street Band and Steve Earle are going to sit in when we play New York. When we play Nashville we’ll probably get Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, and Emmylou Harris because they all live there.
I imagine that Charlie Sexton is too busy with Bob Dylan’s tour.
Yeah, we were just talking about him last night. I’m not sure he’s available.
Will the structure of the show be similar to the 2007 Car Wheels shows?
We’ll start with the album, but we’re probably gonna change the order. We’re probably not gonna do the exact same sequence that it is on the album. But we’ll do the album, and then probably do some other songs after that. We’re also going to have a visual aspect to the show. We have this guy with us working on a montage of photographs and different imagery to connect with the songs. One of them is a video I stumbled across of my dad and the three kids when we were either driving to Mexico or coming back from there. It was one of our many trips and there’s a little video of it. It’s going to be cool to add that to the show.
Do you find it emotionally hard to go back and revisit some of this material? It documents a pretty difficult time in your life.
Whenever I do an older song, it does take me back. That’s just the way it is. Some of the songs from Car Wheels, like “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles,” we do almost every show. We certainly always do “Drunken Angel.” People always want to hear that one. They really resonate with people and it’s not hard to do them.
Are you able to take a step back from your own work and understand why that particular album has resonated with so many people?
That’s a good question. It’s hard for me since I don’t have the same perspective as everyone else. I go back and look at the Rough Trade record [1988’s Lucinda Williams] with that same kind of attachment. That’s the one where the critics really first started noticing me. It was the first time I went to Europe for a tour. But I’m not sure why that album [Car Wheels] is the one everyone gravitated towards. But it did have a lot of narrative songs like “Drunken Angel,” “Lake Charles” and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” that tell a story.
Do you ever think about releasing a super-deluxe version of the album? You famously spent years recording the songs over and over. I think fans would love to hear how it all evolved over time. I’d definitely want to hear the first attempt at it.
You mean the one that was recorded with [my former producer and guitarist] Gurf Morlix that never came out?
Sure. I think everything you did before Roy Bittan entered the picture and finished it would be cool to hear.
I don’t know. I haven’t thought of that. That would be kind of awkward. So much is tangled up in that. My friendship with Gurf ended during all that, not that I wanted it to. It was his choice. But there’s all this resentment around all that.
I’ve seen Steve Earle talk about how difficult the whole process was for him
Yeah. I mean, this [final version] came out because it sounded better. The whole reason I went back in … I didn’t intend to record the whole thing over again. The story is that we had rough mixes of Car Wheels up to a certain point, but there were a couple of tracks that I wasn’t happy with. Gurf didn’t agree, and so we took a break.
During that time, I moved to Nashville and Steve Earle was there working on his record El Corazón. He asked me to sing on his song “You’re Still Standing There.” He was working with Ray Kennedy at this little studio called Room & Board in Nashville. I went in and I loved the experience. The main thing I loved was how they made my vocals sound. I always wanted the production of the Rough Trade record and Sweet Old World to sound different. I wanted them to sound like the first Pretenders record. When that came out I was like, “That’s what I like! I want that sound!” It was more rock.
I was frustrated with some of the production on Car Wheels. I did those first two records with Gurf and I felt like Car Wheels was going to sound like Sweet Old World. It had that same sound. When I went in with Steve he gave me a copy of his roughs and I loved the sound of it. There was this certain amount of compression or whatever you want to call it, but I loved it. I didn’t know what it was, but I liked it. I sat down with Gurf and I said, “Here is Steve’s rough. Here’s our rough. Listen to them. Steve’s is better.” He listened to Steve’s rough and said, “I hate these. These suck. There’s too much compression. Blah, blah, blah.”
I said, “I don’t care what you think. I like it and I want mine to sound like it.” And so I went in with Steve because he invited me to try a couple of songs to see what happens. It wound up sounding so much better that we kept going with the approval of the label.
What happened from there?
I worked with Steve, but there were still things I wanted to do like bring in Jim Lauderdale or Emmylou Harris for some harmonies. But Steve had to go on tour. And we were butting heads. Everything is fine now. He’d tell you about it now and just laugh, but he had just gotten out of prison not long before that … Everything just pissed him off and I was nervous in the studio. I needed more coddling than he was willing to give in the studio. I would always say things like, “I’m not sure about my vocal on ‘Lake Charles.’ I wanna do it again.” He’d go, “No Lu. When are you going to learn to trust somebody?” He’d also say, “It’s only a record, OK? Deal with it.” He likes to record real quick and get it done.
So, anyway, we ended up going to L.A. to work with Roy Bittan. My bass player, the late John Ciambotti, knew Roy. He said, “I’ll go in with you. I’ve got time.” We went to a studio deep in the valley. It was more about doing overdubs at first, but now we’ve got a new engineer/producer guy that is going, “Goddamn, these guitars are out of tune. What was Steve thinking?”
During this time, 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. They ended up writing that I was difficult to work with since I trashed some of Emmylou’s vocals. She just sang on something and I decided I didn’t want to use it. It wasn’t that it wasn’t any good. 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.
Right. Most of your albums come together pretty easily. This is really the big exception and yet it’s defined you.
Yeah. Part of the reason it took so long to come out was this behind-the-scenes business stuff. I finished it and then it was canned for a whole year. It was supposed to come out on Rick Rubin’s label American, but he was having distribution problems and everything came to a screeching halt. There was a bidding way and Mercury Records got it, but there were negotiations in trying to get the masters from Rick. It was just more legal blah, blah, blah. Rick didn’t want to let it go, understandably. But that delay didn’t have anything to do with us or the studio or anything.
When it finally came out, the reviews were ecstatic. Did it ever get overwhelming?
Well, I was overwhelmed when I won the Grammy [for Best Contemporary Folk Album]. [Laughs] That overwhelmed me. But I don’t know if I was overwhelmed by the response. I went through that initially with the Rough Trade record. That was my little breakthrough after so many years.
Did you feel the pressure to make a followup when you began Essence?
Yeah. I had to get past that. I didn’t have enough songs for the next one.
To flash forward to the present, are you still working on your book?
Yes. Actually, the book has been more overwhelming than any album I’ve ever done. [Laughs] That’s because I’ve never done a book before. There’s so much emotional stuff I’ve had to go through. Also, what do I put in and I do I leave out? I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. What if I don’t remember enough things?
I kinda wanna go around and just talk to as many people as possible. I’ve actually been doing that for a little bit. I was just in New Orleans and I looked up a couple of my friends from high school and another guy who was a writing student of my dad’s. They all had different stories. Everyone remembers things a little differently, so that has been interesting. Tom [Overby], my husband/manager, we sometimes sit down at the kitchen table when we’re home off the road and we’ll start talking. He’ll go, “Wait a second, let me get this on tape; this is good.” Then he’ll turn on the recorder on his phone. I’ll talk about my childhood or whatever and we’ll send it to my editor in New York once it gets transcribed.
She’s been happy with everything so far, but I think we’re going to bring in someone that has done this before. I kinda want to get a different perspective. I want someone to look at everything we have because the older you get, the more stuff you’re gonna have. There’s just so much.
Is the book your whole life story from childhood until right now?
Yeah. We had meetings when we went to different publishing companies in New York. The general consensus was that you don’t want it to be too long. They would point out other autobiographies and say, “This one is good and I don’t think this one is as good.” That kind of thing.
Everybody really liked Patti Smith’s Just Kids. They used that as an example of how to do it. They said she just took a chapter from her life and wrote about it, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be your entire life. But that’s how I picture it because I think people are interested in my childhood since I refer to it in so many of my songs. Then other people say, “You should just focus on your life in the music world.”
I mean, there could probably be two books, at least. In fact, I could write a book about what all the songs are about. That could be a book in itself because people want to know about that and I’ve managed to keep the mystery there, for the most part.
Are you working on any new songs right now?
Yeah, I’ve got some. I’ve been doing that at the same time.
Do you have any sort of timeline for your next record?
I don’t really. I was just talking to Tom about this yesterday. We need to wrap up this touring. I’ve been doing my own shows and also shows with Charles Lloyd because that new album is out that I did with him. I’ve been busy. We’ve got all of December off and I think we’re gonna maybe try and go into the studio at the beginning of the year and start doing stuff. But we already have shows lined up at the end of January. We’re doing some shows with the Drive-By Truckers. It’s just hard to say no, you know?
I guess that’s a good problem to have, being too much in demand.
You’re absolutely right. It is a good problem to have. I actually mentioned that recently. I said, “Look, I’m really lucky in that regard. I guess I must be doing something right ’cause people want to see me. They want to know what I have to say.”