LUCINDA WILLIAMS, CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD, 1998
Also available on KFOG Fantasy Studios Berkeley CA 9-26-98 (Bootleg)
In 1998, I spent the summer studying in Oxford. While I picked up my share of music over there, I focused on stuff I couldn't get at home-- singles, boots, UK-only collections, etc, so I let a lot of releases go by. When I finished my final paper, a week before heading home, I ordered myself some CDs to greet me at home, including this one. I got home from the airport and had to jump right in the car for a work retreat on the northern coast of California. I had time to grab a shower, pack a bag with clean clothes, and grab the package off my stoop. That night, jet-lagged, culture-shocked and lying on a couch in a house in Mendocino, I put Car Wheels On A Gravel Road into my CD player. I listened to it twice straight, and ended up sitting out on the porch watching the ocean change colors in the moonlight and listening to Lucinda Williams finally make the great record she had in her.
Most know the torturous six-year story of this album (made three times, I believe, until she finally felt it was right) and while I listen to her less and less these days (some of her more recent work I find almost embarrassing), if you come at this album outside of the baggage surrounding it, it's a great, consistent, confident listen with tremendous tunes. This one is my favorite. It's a ridiculously simple song that's an A chord for four minutes-- no changes. But it works. It's a gutbucket, sexy song that plays to Williams' strength as a singer. She slides all over it and takes us all over the South to "find" her joy. The band here is outstanding-- fantastic guitar playing. And after four minutes, she just stops. She makes her point, and it's on to the next tune. It's hard to pinpoint the tone here-- anger? lust? resignation? empowered? That's part of what I like about it-- when she finds her joy, is she going to punch it, kiss it, or both?
In 1999, Tom Petty played a week at the Fillmore, and he invited Lucinda to open for him with her unreal touring band. She played a 90 minute opening set that blew the Heartbreakers off the stage (and as we'll discover later, I have very little negative to say about Mr. Petty). She was absolutely on fire that year, and "Joy" was the unquestioned highlight of the set, sometimes stretching to fifteen minutes long. How sad that she started to rush-release albums, cut her touring band back to a trio, and started rapping. But nothing can ruin "Joy" for me. One of the 10 best one chord songs ever? Any other nominees?
What may be the definitive version of the track is linked below, from Austin City Limits with that incredible band. Get ready to have your ears pinned back.