As Lucinda Williams began to strum the opening rhythm chords to “Right in Time” on her acoustic guitar recently, she realized that she wasn’t wearing her headset at the Strathmore Music Center. She stopped to gear up and, in her Louisiana drawl, said to the audience, “Well, I guess the ice is broken now.”
“Right in Time” kicks off Lucinda’s landmark 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album and is ranked just outside the top 300 on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums. Car Wheels stands as a towering achievement of Americana music, marrying countrified blues roots to singer-songwriter lyricism and epic rock ’n’ roll.
On Sept. 24 at Strathmore, Lucinda and her band performed Car Wheels in its entirety, celebrating its 20th anniversary. Throughout the playing of Car Wheels, a screen displayed images that gave depth and context to the songs.
Lucinda described the title track of the album as “a day in the life as seen from a child’s eyes in the South.” Remarkably, she didn’t realize that she was the child looking out from the back seat of the car. After a performance, her father, poet Miller Williams, offered an apology for the emotional distress portrayed in the song and told her that she was that little girl.
Because her songs are very personal, people often ask Lucinda if she is ever uncomfortable with the degree to which she exposes herself. Truthfully, she said, she is not. While “part of me is very shy,” she said, “the other part is a rebel,” and she likes to push people’s buttons.
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Setting down her guitar, Lucinda introduced “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” inspired by images from Birney Imes’s photography book Juke Joint. As guitarist Stuart Mathis wailed away on a solo, the screen displayed a photo that showed the inscription “June bug vs Hurricane / 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which Lucinda built the song around. A photo from Imes’s book also appears on the cover of the album.
Many of Lucinda’s songs deal with heartbreak and relationships. Since she got married, “found my soulmate,” as she said, she’s been asked if she’ll still be able to write songs. She reassured the audience that her youth provides a deep well of inspiration. Plus, there are still sources of dissatisfaction in her life, as there are in everyone’s. “I’m sure even the Dalai Lama has bad days,” she commented.
Lucinda retrieved acoustic guitar for “Drunken Angel,” the tragic story of the death of Blaze Foley, whose “If I Could Only Fly” was recorded by Merle Haggard. While written about Blaze, Lucinda views the song as generalizable to other artists who died young, naming Gram Parsons and Kurt Cobain. She talked about Blaze’s drinking problems, and his friendship with fellow songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who had his own problems with alcohol. A third figure in their circle, guitarist Wrecks Miller, now owns and operates the Old Quarter, a music venue in Houston.
Blaze, Lucinda the audience, had the oddball habit of covering things in duct tape, which she later learned was his way of protesting commercial country. “Bless his heart,” she said, digressing to explain the various meanings that phrase can take on, depending on inflection (and intent).
Originally written about a couple of star-crossed lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, and then magically transported to Louisiana, “Concrete and Barbed Wire” can be read in light of current immigration issues and the president’s desire to build a wall. One could just as easily substitute towns in Texas, Lucinda said, for the original locations in the song.
Apologizing for having two songs in a row about somebody dying, Lucinda described how “Lake Charles” chronicled the last years of a lover she had, Clyde. Despite being from Nacogdoches, Texas, Clyde told everyone he was from Louisiana. Clyde came from money; his parents were alcoholics who belong to a country club, and he tried to remake himself as something different. Clyde liked to drink, cooked a mean a pot of gumbo, and loved blues, soul, and R&B. Just as the song describes, Lucinda and Clyde had a yellow El Camino – for a few days. Sadly, Clyde just couldn’t focus and never really got his act together before dying young.
Randy Weeks wrote “Can’t Let Go,” the lone cover on Car Wheels. Lucinda recommended Randy’s solo album, Madeline.
“I Lost It” is the oldest song on the album. Lucinda originally recorded it on Happy Woman Blues. Living in Houston in the ’70s, she saw bumper stickers that declared “I Found It.” She attributed these stickers as belonging to “Jesus freaks” who had taken “too many psychedelics.”
“Metal Firecracker” and “Still I Long for Your Kiss” were the product of a tour romance. The man Lucinda was involved with referred to the tour bus as a “metal firecracker.” When Lucinda finally tried to pin him down on where he stood, he coldly told her over the phone, “I love you, but you don’t fit into my agenda.” At least she got these songs out of the experience, she said.
The two songs on Car Wheels named for cities, “Greenville” and “Jackson,” are also both relationship songs. “Joy,” with its refrain of “You took my joy, I want it back,” has become a mainstay of her concert sets. The feel of “Joy,” which differs a bit from the rest of the album, came from Steve Earle, who produced most of Car Wheels, pushing Lucinda. Steve, as Lucinda reminded the audience, hadn’t been out of prison very long, and he’d been listening to hip-hop while was he behind bars.
After finishing with the last song on Car Wheels, “Jackson,” Lucinda received a standing ovation and Buick 6 left the stage, leaving Lucinda alone on stage with her acoustic guitar. She introduced “Ghosts of Highway 20” as a companion piece to the song “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.” “Car Wheels” tells the story of a child looking out from the back seat of the car; “Ghosts” is Lucinda at the wheel, driving a highway that runs, as she described it, through northern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Buick 6 returned for “Pineola,” from Lucinda’s album Sweet Old World, which chronicles the suicide of poet Frank Stanford. The song describes how her father, something of a mentor to Frank, was called upon to deal with the scene, as well as the meeting of Frank’s two worlds, his fellow poets and his family, at his funeral. Lucinda discussed how she changed certain biographical details to make the song more Southern Gothic, making him Pentecostal rather than Catholic.
After “Pineola,” Lucinda sang two songs from her album Essence: “Steal Your Love” and the title cut. “Righteously” led into a bit of “Walk On The Wild Side;” the two songs use the same chords.
Lucinda received her second standing ovation of the night after “Righteously,” and returned to the give the crowd a well-earned encore. With the crowd clapping to keep the beat, she sang “Faith and Grace” a capella, then finished with “Get Right With God.” It was truly a remarkable evening from one of America’s greatest songwriters.