Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”

Cover for Lucinda William's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

This week, I’ve been listening to Lucinda William’s fifth album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” from 1998. I do not recall hearing any of her recordings before, though I definitely heard Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of her song “Passionate Kisses.” In 1998, I had only started listening to Dwight Yoakam, and my awareness of country music was slim. This album wouldn’t have appealed to me when it came out, but I liked it immediately listening to it for the first time now. It’s a good blend of country and folk rock that I believe today may get it classified as alt-country. These solid songs achieve being naturally catchy while maintaining a since of sincerity and substance. I find it a challenge to choose three songs to focus, because it excludes the others.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

The title track of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” plays after the opening track “Right on Time.” The backing band consists of drums, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, and a mando-guitar. That’s a new one for me. The mando-guitar combines, as you’d expect, elements of mandolin and guitar. Basically, they build it much like a mandolin with same type of strings, but has six strings tuned to a guitar’s standard tuning. In other words, it allows a guitar player to play a mandolin learning a new instrument. The electric guitar is pushed just past the point of the amp breaking up, giving it a gritty distortion. Williams’s started her career in acoustic country-blues, and a preference for this gritty raw guitar sound makes sense. To me it sounds warm and rocking.

The verses drive through a V-ii-V-ii-V-ii-IV-I chord progression for the first two listen, followed by another V-ii-IV-I for the next line, then V-ii-IV-I again for a refrain. The kick drum and bass give emphasis for each IV-I cadence, letting the IV ring out. This gives that cadence a bit of a stomp after the rolling chug of the V-ii pattern during the vocals. Those are played with a rhythm picking eighth note rhythm with an open strum on the up-beat. This supported by the kick-kick-snare beat on the drums. The chorus brings a stronger IV-I-IV-I chord progression, while the vocals repeat the lyrics of the refrain higher.

The lyrics tell an vague story from a young child’s perspective. Something is happening with at least one of the parents that is beyond the child’s understanding, but requires a long drive in the car. The overall feeling is something stressful and sad. I suspect the parents are separating. The speaker of the song mixes the perspective of the mother and the child that suggests they are both the same person viewing the event from different times. Most of the parent’s view is revealed through quotation, until we get to the line “Could tell a lie but my heart would know.” The passing series of images open to interpretation add to the power of the lyrics. These verses follow a ABAB rhyme scheme followed by a refrain.

Can’t find a damn thing in this place
Nothing’s where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road

Drunken Angel

Lucinda Williams’s song “Drunken Angel” tells tale of Austin country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. He was friends with Townes Van Zandt and they had great influence on each other. Unlike Van Zandt, however, Foley seemed to have bad luck when it came to getting an album released. Apparently he managed to record three of them, but the master tapes were confiscated by the DEA, stolen, and lost. The third one was found after his passing in 1989. The lyrics of “Drunken Angel” use his death as a lens to both praise and criticize Foley. His friend Concho January was a veteran on welfare. Foley confronted Concho’s son with suspicions that he was stealing his father’s pension and welfare; Foley was subsequently shot by Concho’s son. Williams’s song expresses disappointed and anger over how Foley’s life choices got in the way of his own songwriting genius.

Again, Williams uses a lyrics structure of verses that end with a refrain and choruses that repeat that refrain like an anthem, though this time the choruses do include an additional line. These verses also follow a ABABC rhyme scheme. The verses here follow a I-ii-IV-I-ii-IV-ii-IV-I-I chord progression. The choruses then launch into a (I)-ii-IV-IV-I-ii-IV-IV-I chord progression. The title of “drunken angel” applied to both the song and the subject combine both her praise for him as a songwriter and her condemnation of his lifestyle. The use of the word “angel” also conveys that he has passed on, “you’re on the other side.” She further lays this condemnation upon his enabling followers.

Followers would cling to you
Hang around just to meet you
Some threw roses at your feet
And watch you pass out on the street
Drunken angel

Lake Charles

Williams’s friend and former boyfriend Clyde J. Woodward Jr died of cirrhosis. He died while she was on a plane to see him one last time to say goodbye. She wrote the song “Lake Charles” about him. They both came from Louisiana. Early in her career he had been both her boyfriend and her agent. But, as the song tells, wherever they went he felt that homeward pull from Louisiana. Especially, the city of Lake Charles. His friend Margaret Moser was with holding his hand at the end, and she wrote an article for the Austin Chronicle that goes into detail about the song and Clyde’s end. This bittersweet track warmly remembers a friend that has passed. She expertly mixes the sadness with love and care, focusing on the heart while letting the sadness come through between the lines.

This ballad consists of two verses, each with two sets of three lines followed be a three line refrain. After the second verses, there is a bridge with a slide guitar solo, followed by a repetition first three lines of the first verse, then refrain twice. The verses follow a I-V-I-IV-I-V for the first three lines, which is repeated for the next three lines. Then for the refrain, they play IV-I-IV-I-V-I. The second verse brings in some wonderful accordion for atmosphere to recall Louisiana. I often forget how much I love the sound of accordion as part of accompaniment.

The lyrics focus on geography. During the second verse, you can feel Williams riding on that airplane as she recalls their road trips years ago. As seen in that verse, she frequently mentions Lake Charles, which is where he most associated.

He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles
He used to talk about it, he’d just go on and on
He always said Louisiana was where he felt at home
He was born in Nacogdoches
That’s in East Texas, not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody that he was from Lake Charles
Did an angel whisper in your ear?
And hold you close, and take away your fear?
In those long, last moments

Leave a Reply