My All-Timers: 22. Lucinda Williams — Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

You never know what you’ll find at your local DAV store. In the summer of 2005, I went garage sale-hopping one day with my friend Nash and his mom. They stopped at a DAV and I browsed through the selection of beat-up CDs, in which there usually is nothing good. But for $1.95, they had Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. All I knew of Lucinda Williams was from my old manager in the electrical department at Menards constantly talking about her and how she was his favorite singer ever. I assumed she played boring country, so I never checked her out. But in this moment, I had a fond memory of Mat (he spelled it with one t, not two), and I took the two dollar plunge for him.

I drove my minivan around that summer delivering pizza for Domino’s, and only rarely did Car Wheels leave my CD player. On the nights when being a pizza driver would be at its worst — juggling three orders at a time, navigating through heavy construction and having to stay at the store til 3am — Lucinda Williams was my calm through the storm. I honestly think I only stayed sane because when I got stressed and overheated, I had a woman with a Southern drawl telling me not to worry.

“Right in Time” opens Car Wheels with a cracking snare and an indelible lead guitar line that feels like the wide open road unveiling itself before you as you head out on a sunny day. That warmth extends to the lyrics, in which Lucinda sings about what at first just sounds like her deep love for a certain someone. But as the song goes on, and as she makes clear at the start of the video included here, it turns out that “this is a song about lust.” She sings, “I take off my watch and my earrings, my bracelets and everything. Lie on my back, and moan at the ceiling. Ohhhh, my baby.” The gravity of the end of that line, and the simple exhalation of that that “ohhhh” should be taught in Songwriting School for how to properly express sexual ecstasy without making your song unplayable on the radio.

But “Right in Time” is where the romantic harmony comes to an end. For the rest of Car Wheels, not one song tells of a relationship where everything is fine and dandy. A couple songs don’t even deal with relationships, but the rest that do are perfectly within the country comfort zone of dysfunction and longing. “Concrete and Barbed Wire” is about the materials that separate Lucinda’s character and her fictional lover — a man doing time in prison. “Greenville,” on which Lucinda duets with the lovely Emmylou Harris, is a plea to a broken mess of a man whom she never wants to see again. “Metal Firecracker” pinpoints a common but unspoken problem that comes about when you break up with a longtime partner — asking them to keep all your deepest secrets and never tell them to anyone. And the closing song, “Jackson,” is a singalong about a woman driving through Louisiana and using the names of towns to count the ways in which she won’t miss her ex. She tells us nothing about him or what happened between them. That’s not important. All that matters is that she is now free.

Lucinda sings “Lake Charles” for a real-life ex-boyfriend who drank himself to death long after they broke up. She tried to fly out to see him but he died just before she made it. In the chorus, she wonders if he was able to find some peace “in those long, last moments.” This is one of those gorgeous songs that should become a standard at funerals, even if it probably wasn’t written for that purpose. It brings you to the edge of tears without fully sending you over the edge.

That battle between brokenness and strength is found all through Car Wheels, and is the basis for my favorite story about Lucinda, told to me by Mat from Menards. She played Des Moines in 2004, and at several points she had to stop her show and run offstage. It was difficult to tell if she was overcome by emotion, or a little too drunk, or maybe a bit of both. But Lucinda frequently apologized to the crowd and still finished the show. Mat said it was strange, but ultimately beautiful. Lucinda can’t do anything halfway, even if it means putting her performance in jeopardy. When you hear or see her, you see everything.