Jun 122020

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Beginning around 1990, a major mountain range began forming along the fault lines where country music, punk-influenced rock, and traditional folk music meet. Call it the Alt-Country range, or the Roots/Americana mountains, or whatever you like. The range includes material from then-new artists like Uncle Tupelo (and its offshoots, Son Volt and Wilco), and the work of not-so-new figures, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt among them. Bedrock that was long covered over–songs by the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, say–got brought to the surface again and mixed in with the new. The formative period for Alt-Country ended by 2000 or so, with the final uplift being the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, a project that help usher southern-style folk music beyond certain enclaves in Austin and Nashville.

Looking back, most would agree that among the most prominent peaks in the entire mountain range is Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The album is over 20 years old, but time doesn’t wear it down, and in the rear view mirror it still looms large. Let’s pull over to admire the achievement.

It’s not like Williams packed the album with chart-topping hits. Car Wheels won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but no track broke through to mainstream acclaim. The recording’s excellence is in the collective power of the songs, and in the curious way Williams stitches entire genres together. Country blues, honky-tonk, Southern Gothic ballads, and even some good old heartland rock make it onto the Car Wheels quilt. It’s the work of an artist in full maturity and hard-won control, wrested from a male-dominated music scene.

Car Wheels is full of stories, which Williams tells with novelistic details and poetic imagery. But the album has become the subject of stories, too. It was six years in the making by some accounts, and involved scrapping the first complete attempt and re-recording it. Williams left two successive producers in the ditch along the way, both of them long-time friends. One of them, Gurf Morlix, hasn’t spoken to Lucinda in the 20-something years since; the other was Steve Earle, not very long out of prison and rehab at the time.

After squabbles with Earle, Williams took the project from Nashville to L.A., with new producer Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band. But she ran into obstacles on the west coast, too. When she got all the men involved to listen, finally, she then got the music to sound the way she wanted it to: more like The Pretenders, less like Bobbie Gentry. The completed master tapes were then lost to a tornado–nearly! Even then the drama was far from over, but here it becomes a tale of record label shenanigans rather than music-making. In the end it all worked out (though Gurf Morlix may disagree): William got a certified gold record, and America(na) got a landmark album for music lovers of all persuasions.

The Skipperdees – Right in Time (Lucinda Williams cover)

This first take offers a double-take, with twin sisters Emily and Catherine Backus, aka the Skipperdees, joining forces on “Right in Time.” It’s not just the sibling harmonies that make it a winner, though there’s certainly that. It’s also the subtle changes unique to their arrangement, and the deft guitar- and banjo-playing. Everything about the performance is nicely understated—when you’re this good, you get to be this chill. (Check out their cover of the B-52s to see their more exuberant side.) The Skipperdees’ timing is impeccable throughout, important in a song that’s about being in time. From their Bandcamp bio: “They currently make music in their respective homes of Atlanta, GA and Roanoke, VA, but every now and then get together to sang.” And they sure can sang.

Trees Leave – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams cover)

On their interpretation of the Car Wheels title track, the duo Tree Leaves clings to the original almost too tightly. But the stellar vocals (Wyatt Espalin) and tasty fiddle break (Espalin again) make for a winning combination. Beyond having presence and being pitch-accurate, Espalin sings from within the song. It’s as if he’s imagining that he is the child in the backseat, but that doesn’t stop him from driving the song. No spinning wheels here: this duo gets traction from the get-go.

Stoner – 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten (Lucinda Williams cover)

If Car Wheels defies neat categorization, “2 Kool” is one of the reasons for that. It’s a song that doesn’t come from any standard-issue songwriter template. Even in the unorthodox spelling of the song title (yearbook inscription? late-’90s hip-hop influence? Prince reference?), Lucinda Williams breaks rules. So we can follow suit and get outside the usual conventions with the artist Stoner.

This is the only cover on our list with a piano arrangement—no guitars take part, nor does any other instrument. It’s not even the honky-tonk piano you might expect. The playing is 101-level, with minimal chording and no ornamentation. It’s an interesting way to personalize the song. Vocally, too, Stoner departs from the norm by not going for the “heartfelt” quality most artists try for when interpreting Lucinda’s work. He sings, in comparison, with a cool remove–2 Kool, some might say–but one that is in keeping the spareness of the piano. The song is an outlier even on Stoner’s album bloom, where all other tracks features his guitar and more emotive vocals than on this track. Lucinda takes a liking to outliers, so we are glad to share this cover.

Barbara Blue – Drunken Angel (Lucinda Williams cover)

In contrast to the previous track, this song about musician Blaze Foley—his stormy life and tragic death—deserves the fullest embrace of the emotions on Williams’ mind and heart. (Townes Van Zandt, Kings of Leon, and Gurf Morlix have also penned songs about Foley.) Powerhouse blues vocalist Barbara Blue nails this tribute; if she didn’t know Foley herself, it seems certain that she knew someone like him. It’s a strong performance by the Memphis-based singer, who has covered more than one track from this album. But her band is noteworthy too—it’s basically the Phantom Blues Band that backs Taj Mahal.

Aguaguay – Concrete and Barbed Wire (Lucinda Williams cover)

Any time a non-English-speaker sings in English, it’s an opportunity to hear the song anew (assuming your native language is English). Here’s a song about the walls dividing us, performed by two Spanish musicians who prove that language is no barrier. It’s a nice moment when they sing in unison on the verses, but switch to harmonizing on the refrain. Excelentes las voces y las guitarras¡Otra, otra!

There’s not much in the way of a bio for these performers. Are they brothers? Are they aware of the Skipperdees?

Heart – Lake Charles (Lucinda Williams cover)

We come to yet another of Lucinda’s odes to a lover or friend who has passed—a prayerful hope that he didn’t die alone and uncomforted. If the loud cheering seems out of step in this performance by Heart, remember that the song is also a celebration of place: especially Lake Charles, Louisiana, where this show took place. Each mention of a specific locale gets the crowd hollering. (If you put a map pin down on all the places name-checked on this album, you’d have a colorful map.) The Wilson sisters pay Williams a heartfelt tribute (no pun), and the only sorrow is that the videographer only  captured half the song.

Dan Hardin – Lake Charles (Lucinda Williams cover)

Here’s a very different version of “Lake Charles,” from a much different artist and setting—but it’s a complete version. More than that, it’s a really fine distillation. With his easy-going voice and effortless fingerpicking style, Dan Hardin has a quiet southern charm and sure talent on display. There’s more than a hint of John Prine here (Prine’s another one of Williams’ writing and drinking buddies). Hardin is in a band called Small Time Napoleon, if you want to see what he’s been up to since recording this take many years ago (short answer: a lot).

Shemekia Copeland – Can’t Let Go (Randy Weeks cover)

Despite the spurned-lover viewpoint, this Car Wheels track has a breezy playful vibe about it. Perhaps because she didn’t write this song, Lucinda lets go on it. The amazing Shemekia Copeland and band have a good-time romp with it, too. Copeland’s voice sounds smooth on the phrases where Williams’ voice goes rough, but both deliveries get the job done. Copeland’s band is not kidding around; they are deep in the pocket and bringing the singer obvious delight.

“Can’t Let Go” was written by Randy Weeks, and it earned him a Grammy nomination. In this video, Weeks relates how his song ended up on Car Wheels, and then he and his band launch into their version of it.

The Redhill Valleys – I Lost It (Lucinda Williams cover)

You’ve heard the dismissive remark “They’re all hat and no cattle”? It doesn’t apply to The Redhill Valleys. The Canadian alt.country band has a lot of hat, but they have all the musicianship to back it up—there’s sizzle and steak.

“I Lost It” stands out on the album as a rocker; it’s almost in the Tom Petty vein. The Redhill Valleys could play it behind a tiny desk, in a saloon, or in a hockey stadium and they’d still sell it, with their three-part harmonies, snarling guitar-work, and unbeatable bootwear.

Ben Lee (with New Buffalo) – Metal Firecracker (Lucinda Williams cover)

Taking an encore in some intimate venue, Ben Lee brings up Sally Seltmann (performing under the moniker New Buffalo) to take on a sweet song about a tour bus romance. They trade verses back and forth, and then sweetly blend voices on the “All I ask…” refrain. Whatever that sweet-and-sour interval is that they hit on the word “ask” (which they take straight from Car Wheels), its perfection, and it’s all you can ask for in a plaintive love song.

The Tallest Man on Earth – Greenville (Lucinda Williams cover)

Sweden’s The Tallest Man on Earth has been sharing a cornucopia of covers during quarantine. Part of the fun is not knowing what genre or period he will tackle next, and with what instrument. The 5-string banjo rendition of “Greenville” is from a recent lockdown session, and it sounds really fresh–one part old-timey Appalachian music, one part traditional Celtic music, and one part Chris Thile. Superb.

Duane Jarvis – Still I Long for Your Kiss (Lucinda Williams cover)

There are a few fine covers of this killer song, including one by the actor Peter Gallagher. But the version to spotlight here is by the late great Duane Jarvis. First of all, it features an accordion. Car Wheels is so marinated in Louisiana that a Cajun-flavored accordion sound has to be part of our mix. The other reason Jarviz gets the nod is that he co-wrote the song–on that count he’s got everyone else beat. They called him “sideman to the stars” back when this recording came out in 2000, and that was true enough. But had Duane Jarvis lived longer, he might have achieved stardom himself. He shines very brightly on this track.

Tim Easton – Joy (Lucinda Williams cover)

“Joy” is another one of the genre-defying tracks on the album. The song has a severe edge to it that you don’t find much in singer-songwriter music—if there’s not a punk cover out there somewhere, there needs to be. (It was a punk label, Rough Trade, that gave Williams her first recording contract.) This aggressive live take is by Tim Easton, who has worked with Lucinda in the past–he considers her a mentor. Jamming out on it, the loose-limbed band takes “Joy” on a fairly wild joy ride. It even takes a side-trip into the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Call it Car Wheels on Abbey Road maybe? (Or maybe not.)

Caleb Caudle – Jackson (Lucinda Williams cover)

Few artists can make a song seem newly-born and yet ancient at the same time. Lucinda does that on “Jackson.” It also demonstrates her ability to strip a song down to its essentials—a single sentiment, three simple chords in a common key—in a way that makes the song seem, paradoxically, full to the brim.

The simplicity she achieves doesn’t mean anyone can pick up a guitar and play it well. It takes a certain self-possession to translate the song such that it stands authentically on its own. It takes someone like Caleb Caudle. You know he means business, since he recorded his most recent album in the cabin that Johnny Cash built (later converted to a recording studio). You can sense a theme here: surely Lucinda’s “Jackson” is a response to the more famous “Jackson” recorded by Johnny and June Carter Cash?

Check out more Lucinda Williams covers in our archives.

Cover Me is now on Patreon! If you love cover songs, we hope you will consider supporting us there with a small monthly subscription. There are a bunch of exclusive perks only for patrons: playlists, newsletters, downloads, discussions, polls - hell, tell us what song you would like to hear covered and we will make it happen. Learn more at Patreon.

  One Response to “Full Albums: Lucinda Williams’ ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’”

Comments (1)
  1. Given the Gurf-helmed version is available “out there”, give it a listen for the contrasts. Sits neatly along side the Rafferty (‘s Folly) version of R&L Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>