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Quietly Pursuing Perfection

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Lucinda Williams

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

(Mercury)

By Peter Margasak

Lucinda Williams's career started out uneventfully enough, when in 1978, at age 26, she recorded her first album for Moses Asch's Folkways label. The daughter of poet and professor Miller Williams (who read at Bill Clinton's second inauguration), she'd spent much of her childhood moving around the south, from Jackson to Baton Rouge to New Orleans to Atlanta to Macon, and Ramblin' on My Mind, a collection of mostly Delta blues and old country covers recorded for $250, paid tribute to the music she'd heard along the way. It didn't earn her much more than the chance to record another album, Happy Woman Blues, in 1980, but then again she probably wasn't expecting much. Before it joined forces with the Smithsonian Institution in 1986, Folkways couldn't do a whole lot for an artist beyond manufacturing her records. So when Williams moved to Los Angeles in 1984, she was still looking for a deal.

Instead, she ran up against a brick wall. Though she lost her stage fright and sharpened her edges amid a community of musicians there who were likewise interested in old country, blues, and soul--folks like Dwight Yoakam, Jim Lauderdale, Chris Gaffney, and Buddy Miller--Williams frustrated A and R scouts with her folksy, bluesy country tunes, which couldn't be squashed into one of their tidy, tiny categories. CBS eventually funded a demo, but the rock department balked because it was too country and Nashville rejected it because it sounded too rock. Even today, despite the Grammy Mary Chapin Carpenter won for her wan rendition of Williams's "Passionate Kisses" in 1994, no Nashville music department wants anything to do with her.

At long last, in 1988, the British punk indie Rough Trade offered Williams a deal. But though the eponymously titled album that came out that year earned raves from critics, it didn't sell particularly well, mostly because neither country radio nor rock radio would touch it. That it has sold even 100,000 copies to date is remarkable, considering that it's been in and out of print several times. Rough Trade collapsed in 1991, leaving a black hole that sucked in Lucinda Williams along with lots of other great records. Williams herself escaped, signing to RCA, but before she could start recording, president Bob Buziak got sacked, stranding her in a sea of indifferent A and R people. Buziak then resurfaced at the Elektra subsidiary Chameleon, which took Williams off RCA's hands and reissued the Rough Trade album. Williams also made a new recording, the critically adored Sweet Old World, in 1992, but she scrapped several sessions en route to finishing the album and to this day expresses dissatisfaction with it. The tunes on both records are great--models of economy with compelling narratives--but the production was too slick, and hindsight reveals that as amazing as the vocals are, Williams can do better. At any rate Chameleon folded a few years later, taking both albums with it. Last month Lucinda Williams was reissued yet again--this time by Koch.

Apparently Williams made up her mind that her next album would be perfect, though it's doubtful she or anyone else knew just how long perfection would take. She signed with Rick Rubin's American, an eclectic label with deep pockets, and started recording the new Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in Austin in early 1995, but trashed that session as well as a subsequent one in Nashville. By the time she finished the record, last fall, she had fired longtime guitarist Gurf Morlix, drummer Donald Lindley, and bassist John Ciambotti (though all three appear prominently on the album) and torn through several producers and engineers, including Morlix, Steve Earle, Roy Bittan, and Rubin. She fought frequently with American, and when the label restructured early last year, Rubin put the album on the market, where it was quickly snatched up by Mercury.

A New York Times Magazine profile by Darcy Frey in September described the recording of Car Wheels in protracted detail, painting Williams as an autocratic perfectionist. "I like it," Williams hedges after the umpteenth take of a single line. "It's just not special enough." But it's exactly that obsessive attention to detail that distinguishes the new album from its predecessors. Williams has never before put her warm, lazy, bluesy drawl to such good use; on Car Wheels when she elongates her vowels you can almost see her arching her back seductively, and when she shadows one of her gorgeous melodies with a whispered passage she sounds like she's telling you and only you her most private thoughts. She doesn't just sing her lines--she inhabits them.

The album's opener, "Right in Time," is a succinct slice of longing in which every mundane gesture takes on a lusty weight. "I take off my watch and my earrings," she sings, "my bracelets and everything"; by the end of the verse, she's lying on her back and moaning at the ceiling. Like a soul singer, she emphasizes the expression of emotion over ideas, but she never reaches for the rafters with exaggerated gestures. With the exception of a frustrated shout at the top of "Still I Long for Your Kiss," she barely raises her voice on Car Wheels, preferring to let inflection, pauses, repetition, and careful modulation do the work.

Williams has come a long way since Ramblin', not just geographically but in the way she's digested her travels. That first album broke her influences into more discrete categories, but on Car Wheels she whirls them into a style that's distinctly American and distinctly her own. "Joy" sounds at first like a seething blues, with Williams spitting, "You got no right to take my joy / I want it back," but in fact the tune drones on using only a single chord. And the Cajun-inspired waltz "Concrete and Barbed Wire" ends up sounding more like a new species of country blues than straight-up Creole dance music.

Car Wheels is something of a southern travelogue, a guidebook to who Williams is via where she's been, with titles like "Lake Charles," "Greenville," and "Jackson." In "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" she notes with poetic precision the odd details of a Mississippi juke joint ("Sorry, no credit, don't ask / Bathroom wall reads: Is God the answer? Yes"), while in "Metal Firecracker" she laments a past relationship but savors its simple pleasures ("We'd put on ZZ Top / And turn 'em up real loud"). To get to know the album is to get to know Williams, a smart, rugged southern sensualist whose romanticism keeps her teetering between hedonism and sorrow.

Car Wheels came out June 30, and it has already garnered Williams her usual critical raves. The real question, however, is not whether the album is good but whether it will finally lift her above the cult status imposed on her by her recording-industry travails. If Mercury can survive the imminent takeover of its parent company, Polygram, by Universal Studios, it'll give Williams her first chance in some 20 years to thrive on her own merits. And having made what's so far the year's best album, she deserves at least that much.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Shelby Lee Adams.

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