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

Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits”

Cover for Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits album

This week, I’ve been listening to the posthumous double-LP greatest hits album of Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits.” Mercury Records released this compilation on the 25th anniversary of Hank Williams’s passing on new year’s day 1953 in the small city of Oak Hill, WV. Williams recorded all of these songs for MGM between 1947 and 1952. This compilation presents more direct recordings of the songs, without much of the overdubs heard on earlier releases.

I grew up in a family that listened to pop and rock music;The only place I heard 90s country music was on the school bus radio. It shocked me, in my 30s, to learn that my dad had primarily listened to country music in his early teens. I only heard Hank Williams songs in commercials, tv shows as a joke, or in cover versions. That changed in my adult years. Dwight Yoakam became the first country artist that i seriously liked, and he provided my introduction to artists that came before him.

What we have here is a collection of early country music recordings. Remember, Columbia introduced the 12 inch LP format in 1948. Before that, an album was a collection of physical singles. Music was mostly purchased on thick acetate records, an early example being Eck Robertson’s Sallie Gooden from 1922. The “Howdy Doody” show first aired in 1947. Many consider 1949 the birth year of rock music, but it rock music didn’t really take off until 1954 with “Rock Around the Clock.” Hank Williams recorded these songs between 1947 and 1952. Recording music was still fairly new, and the idea of an album was a decade off yet.

Move It On Over

If we consider 1949 the birth of rock music, then Williams’s “Move It On Over” sounds like a strong precursor. Bill Haley even covered it, as well as particularly rocking cover by George Thorogood. The song combines twelve-bar blues with a country shuffle. The upbeat Williams recording features basic percussion, an upright bass playing a walking groove, acoustic guitar strumming chords, electric guitar playing bluesy melodic lines, fiddle padding between vocals lines, backing vocals from the group, and Hank Williams singing lead. The percussion is so far back it’s more felt than heard. The upright bass provides more of a percussive sound to the track than the drums.

Each verse follow a blues progression of I-I-IV-I-V-I. The first two lines of each verse provide the narrative part. The speaker spending too many nights out late and his wife won’t let him back in the house. The rest of each verse are spoken to the dog in the doghouse. The titular phrase “Move it on over” is to the dog, because the doghouse is getting rather cramped now that the “big dog’s moving in.” The second two lines of each verse features a call and response with the backing vocals answering “move it on over.” And then each verse is capped with the punchline (of sorts) “Move over short dog cause the tall dog’s moving in.”

She warned me once, she warned me twice
But I don’t take no one’s advice
So scratch it on over (move it on over)
Shake it on over (move it on over)
Move over short dog cause a tall dog’s moving in

Ramblin’ Man

Williams wrote the mournful slow song “Ramblin’ Man” with a simple two chord progression in a minor key: i-V7. Bass guitar beats on the first and third beat of each measure. Acoustic guitar strums, emphasizing each slow quarter like a slowly churning train in the distance. A fiddle cries gently, again that far-off train’s whistle. Clean electric guitar with tremolo provides a haunting lead accompanying Williams’s singing. The speaker provides this apologetic dirge on how he can’t settle down because the urge to travel and move on is stronger than his love for the listener.

Each verse consists of four lines followed by a two line refrain. Each pair of lines rhyme as a couplet. He consistently uses the sound of the train as providing the call to ramble. This is combined with the declaration that God made him this way, he must ramble. His nature and that call compels him to leave, and no matter how he might want to, he cannot deny his nature.

I can settle down and be doing just fine
Til’ I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the Lord made me, he made a Ramblin’ Man

Hey, Good Lookin’

Hank Williams wrote his “Hey Good Lookin'” drawing direct inspiration from the Cole Porter song “Hey Good Lookin’.” Legend has it that Williams wrote the song in less than half-an-hour when requested to write a hit song for a friend. Either he wrote it knowingly making a reference to the Cole Porter song, or it was a subconscious transference. The Porter song has the lines of “Hey good lookin’,
Say what’s cookin’? Do you feel like bookin’ some fun tonight?” With first two lines sung not terribly unlike the Hank Williams tune, which starts with “Hey good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ something up with me?” Both songs use the cooking as a starting point for a proposition of love in much the same way.

I first heard this song in commercials from the mid-80s from the National Cheese Board, “How’s about cookin’ something up with cheese?

The catchy chorus of the Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'” follow a I-I-II-V7 chord progression. The verses drop into a IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-II-V7 progression. A IV-I progression is the same as a I-V progression in the subdominant. I do not suggest that this is a key change, but it is interesting to think about, because if the song opened with a verse, we might suspect the song was in a different key than it is. The chorus establishes the key at the beginning. This contributes to the feeling of stable resolution that the chorus provides after the IV-I progression of the verses.

The lyrics of first verse maintain the AABB rhyme scheme that is also used in the other verse. “dollar bill” rhymes with “over the hill.” is better than just “bill” with “hill” But listen also to the use of consonance within the lines. “got a hot rod ford” with “spot” and “soda pop.” He sings “dollar” and “dancing” likewise in the same position of the first and third lines. These lines beat musically without even hearing the melody.

I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun come along with me

40 Greatest Hits

Many of these songs bare similarities to each other, more so than often found on albums. I think that is due to the nature of their original intentions as releases. The public received these as singles with two songs at a time. The need to try something different in approach was not as strong when the songs were not going to be heard all together. There’s also similarities that are normal within a genre, especially with a single artist.

The bass almost always emphasizes the first and third beat of each measure, with a walking bass that bounces back and forth travelling across the progression. The acoustic guitar shuffles, with emphasis on the second and third beat of each measure. A brushed snare drum often strengthens the rhythm of the acoustic. A clean electric guitar, sometimes with subtle tremolo, opens the tracks with a country-blues lead that pulls the listener into the rhythm of the song. These intros are frequently only one or two bars. The songs are about the emotional narrative, usually mournful and sad. Metaphors represent the other feeling or urges, and Williams wisely uses one metaphor per song, making word choices that support both that metaphor and the emotion.

Overall, this is a collection of extremely well-crafted songs.

Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”

Album cover for Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve been listening to Dolly Parton’s album “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971, this week. This was her eighth solo album, just four years after her debut album. During that time, she also recorded six albums with Porter Wagoner. That’s amazing, especially considering her work also on The Porter Wagoner Show tv series. The audience of that show apparently didn’t like Parton at first, since she replaced a former star on the show. Parton is an amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her personality is undeniable and impossible to not love. She went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and influential country artists of all time.

I don’t recall ever hearing any of the songs this album before. Of course, I know some of her later hits like “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” That last recorded for the great movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. I’ve been looking forward to this week and it was worth it. With the single exception of the Wagoner penned “The Mystery of the Mystery,” this album holds a tremendous collection of songs. The second track song humorous “Travellin’ Man” is a joy to listen to and I almost chose it as one of my featured three. However, instead I’ll talk about “Coat of Many Colors,” “Early Morning Breeze,” and “Here I Am.”

Coat of Many Colors

In the title track “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells a true story from her childhood. Born in a one-room cabin on a farm in Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, Parton grew up with little money and many siblings. In Parton’s words, they were “dirt poor.” This song shares how her mother made her a coat from “a box of rags someone gave us.” In 2015, the story was shown as a tv movie with the same name.

The song opens with a great acoustic guitar-picked rising arpeggio. Parton’s voice, electric bass guitar, and a hi-hat join in for a short intro verse and then the first verse. An organ join for the second verse, padding with extended chords. Backing vocals then contribute to the chorus.

The chord progression is a folk-country I-I-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. Though the verses do not end with a repeated refrain, musically the verses have a ballad-like quality. The last line of the lyrics provides the only rhyme of the verses, which is worth two lines previous (love/of, happiness/kiss). The chorus rises up with a IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. After the first chorus, the chord drops down to the major VI, which serves as a pivot for key change, that’s major VI becomes the major V of the new key.

The rising key change goes with the hope Parton felt as a child of proudly wearing her new colorful patchwork coat to school. However, when she gets there, the other kids laugh at her. Even when she tells them about how her momma lovingly made the coat, they just roll their eyes and make fun of her.

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Early Morning Breeze

The second song on the second side, “Early Morning Breeze” caught my attention immediately. This idyllic description of morning in a beautiful country meadow takes the listener to where the speaker goes walking and to pray. Musically, it leans more towards psychedelic folk than country. There’s a taste of Irish folk music mixed with hippie blues. At the end of the chorus, I almost expected a Led Zeppelin style break-down to happen.

An electric bass opens the track with sparse drums, to be joined by vocals. Then a picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar. For but a bar, the drums and bass pick up for the chorus, but that’s it. There’s a lot of space between instruments, making the song sound light and airy, much like that early morning scene.

Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun
The aster and the dahlia and wild geraniums
Drops of morning dew still lingers on the iris leaves
In the meadow where I’m walking
In the early morning breeze

Here I Am

With “Here I Am,” the album provided another surprise to me as Parton took a very soulful turn. Considering this was a country album from 1971, that started off with a very traditional country feel, I did not expect the variety on side two. This song would not be out of place on a record by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or Dusty Springfield. “Here I Am” is some gospel soul offering love and hope. The spirit-filled backing vocals emphasize the message. Dry punchy tight drums keep the song rocking, doubling up on the kick drum at times with a march feel. A clean electric guitar and clean electric bass playfully interact with each other, building musical phrases between verses that are truly amazing.

I love that guitar riff that happens during the post-chorus leading into the verses. It’s a simple blues-rock melodic clean dry guitar, instantly enjoyable and totally memorable. The bass guitar completes the phrase, in a modest but wholly necessary way. It’s a counterpoint that enriches that guitar, by bouncing up and down between the lead-melodic parts.

Here I am, reaching out to give you love that you’re without
I can help you find what you’ve been searching for
Oh here I am, come to me, take my hand because I believe
I can give you all the love you need and more
Oh here I am, oh here I am, here I am

Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison”

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album coverI listened to Johnny Cash’s 1968 live album “At Folsom Prison” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. June Carter, Marshall Grant, W.S. Holland, Carl Perkins, Luther Perkins, and the Statler Brothers joined Cash in two performances at the prison. From these live recordings, they selected 16 excellent tracks for the album. While I had some appreciation, I never really cared much for Johnny Cash. A week with this album changed my mind.

Cash’s signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” opens the album. The audience of prisoners dutifully keep silent until he finishes introduces himself, then they cheer. He fittingly starts with the “Folsom Prison Blues” which he had originally recorded in 1955. This narrative country song follows a standard country-blues chord progression of I-I-I-I7-IV-I-V7-I. Cash sings while strums acoustic guitar with a steady rhythm. The bass guitar bounces between the first and fifth note of the chord on each quarter note. A clean electric guitar punctuates with staccato syncopation. This electric guitar combined with the drums creates the railroad train rhythm of the song.

The lyrics tell the first person narrative of a man “stuck in Folsom Prison.” Often a song with this setting would have us feel sympathy for the prisoner. However, since this one “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” it’s difficult to feel to bad for him. Cash later said that he tried to think of the most evil reason to kill somebody. So, this isn’t a case of somebody being stuck in prison that didn’t deserve it.

“I hear the train a comin’ It’s rollin’ ’round the bend” introduces the train. ThisĀ  becomes a major symbol in the song. Cash uses the train to provide contrast with the prison. The prisoner hears the train go by routinely and envisions the passengers having a good time. He could accept his imprisonment were it not for this reminder of what he’s missing out on.

Well, I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a-movin’,
And that’s what tortures me.

The lines utilize an ABAB rhyme scheme. Throughout the song, the second and fourth lines are always end with a true rhyme and the first and third lines usually end with slant rhymes.

I also particularly liked “Cocaine Blues,” which is a cover of an old Red Arnall. Cash keeps the hyper tempo of the song, but gives the vocals a more human treatment. The chords travel along a simple I-V progression throughout until the final couplet. The song ends with a I-IV-II-V-I. This song also tells of a murderer imprisoned through a series of couplets.

Early one mornin’ while makin’ the rounds,
I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down.
I went right home and I went to bed,
I stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head.

This man blames it on a mixture of jealousy, whiskey, and cocaine. He “shot her down because she made me sore. I thought I was her daddy but she had five more.” He closes the tale by advising the listeners to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.” In the original version, Red Arnall said it was okay to “drink all you want to, but let that cocaine be.”

During the second half of the album, Cash’s soon-to-be wife June Carter joins him to sing “Jackson.” This was a cover of a song by Billy Edd Wheeler. I enjoy Cash’s bit of flirting with Carter before they start the song, as well as her witty response. Much like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson” drives through a country-blues chord progression. The first two lines of each verse are I—I7, with the second two following I-IV-I-I-I-IV-V7-I. Again, the bass bounces through the first and fifth note of each chord emphasizing the rhythm. The drums also roll along in the background.

June also joins along in “Give My Love to Rose” which was written by Johnny Cash. They give an excellent performance at Folsom Prison, but I prefer the sound of the original 1957 single. We see here another chord progression built entirely on I, IV, and V chords. The first two lines of each verse are I-IV-I-I, and the second two are IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I. That makes this song a type of country-blues. This first-person narrative is actually a third-person tale. The speaker meets up with a dying man by the railroad track. The dying man had just finished serving his time in prison. He was “trying to get back to Louisiana to see (his) Rose and get to know (his) son.” The simple chorus gently delivers the strong emotion of the story.

Give my love to Rose, please won’t you mister.
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes.
Tell my boy his daddy’s so proud of him
And don’t forget to give my love to Rose.

This was a tremendous album that gave me an appreciation for the work and performance of Johnny Cash. I’m ready now to revisit his other material that I’ve written off before. The songs provide examples of great songwriting. They tell stories about unlikely characters that can be appreciated at a surface level; They also present additional layers using symbols and implied meaning. All elements of the performance are there to support the lead vocal, which is there to tell the story. That songs of Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” demonstrate how much you can achieve with the most basic elements when the songwriting is strong.