Lucinda Williams

'Car Wheels on a Gravel Road' Turns 20: Lucinda Williams & Producer Steve Earle Reflect on Her Masterpiece

Six years separated Lucinda Williams’ 1992 album Sweet Old World and what would become her career-defining release, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her fifth studio set. There are plenty of rumors circulating about what took so long between records, but Williams’ work in defining modern-day Americana music was immediate and transcendent.

At the time, she had shuffled between several different record labels but eventually landed with Mercury Records. Williams had initially worked with guitarist and long-time collaborator Gurf Morlix before deciding to re-record the entire album with Steve Earle and his business partner Ray Kennedy. From startling misunderstandings to hitting up against major deadlines, the album changed hands again, and at the end, Roy Bittan took the baton for some final touches. The result was one of the most important albums of the '90s, a peerless record that assisted in cementing what exactly the term "Americana" meant while bringing together Lucinda's best displays of songwriting and playing into one cohesive body of work.

“Oh my god. Has it been that long? It doesn’t seem like it,” Williams tells Billboard about the album’s 20th anniversary on June 30. Earle also shares his initial impressions: “I was talking about playing a song on stage together the other night that came from The Mountain, which was the following year. It was my record with The Del McCoury Band. That was 19 years ago. I added that that is just what happens. Time seems to accelerate after a while. Car Wheels is kind of a big deal for Lu and a big deal for me, too. It's one of those mile markers.”

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road has been certified gold for moving more than 500,000 copies and went on to win the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1999. It has spawned such staples as “Drunken Angel,” “Joy” and “Can’t Let Go,” which also earned Williams a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.

In honor of the groundbreaking set’s 20th anniversary, Williams and Earle set the record straight about the album’s storied past and what brought so many manifestations. Earle also corrects a misquote that has been circulating for nearly two decades and talks how hip-hop was the basis for much of his approach.

Lasting Legacy

Williams: A lot of the songs we’ve been doing over the years are off this album. It’s people’s favorite album. Fortunately, I have other albums other than Car Wheels. [laughs] It took a while. The album was one of those launching pads where a lot of people got to know me through it. It’s definitely still a special album. I always remind people that the door was really kicked open for me with the [1988] self-titled album on Rough Trade. Were it not for Rough Trade Records, I might have ended up back in Austin, Texas and who knows what would have happened. With the Rough Trade album, that was the one where it took this punk label out of England to take a chance on me. People didn’t know how to identify it. There wasn’t Americana at the time. Everybody passed on me because they didn’t know how to market it. It’s a little bit country and rock, and fell into the cracks a little bit. As it is with a lot of things, Europeans tend to be less preoccupied with the commercial aspects of music and art. Then, I was on my way. Car Wheels was the really big door.

Earle: It's one of those records that’s an absolutely iconic record to a certain group of people. It's almost everybody that's involved in the kind of music that I'm involved in... an important record to all of them. Then, there's this special audience, women over a certain age that she's an absolute icon to that latched onto it. You can build a career on an audience like that, because it's a loyal following that relates to you in a very special way. It's a cool thing to be part of.

I think we're on the downside of singer-songwriters in the pop mainstream. That's not where we are anymore, being a singer-songwriter now is like being a bluegrass player or a jazz musician. You can make a really good living at it, but it's not the pop mainstream anymore. After [Bob] Dylan, everybody that managed to get there had to sell out to some degree and except for maybe Bruce Springsteen -- and he made the decision to write a song that could crossover to all formats. “Dancing in the Dark” is one of my very favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, and I think it's amazing that he did it and pulled it off. And it's still Springsteen. That's one of those things. By the time the ‘80s came along, the music business was on its way as we knew to dying, and we just didn't see it coming.

Defining Americana Music

Williams: It’s amazing that [this album] continues to still be heralded as a breakthrough album. Initially, I was signed to Mercury Records, and it was still with them. Lost Highway was formed under the umbrella of Mercury. Based on the strength of Car Wheels, Luke Lewis, who was running Mercury Nashville, had said, “Let’s start our own label with this kind of music.” It still didn’t have a name. It wasn’t called Americana until the Americana Music Awards got set up. I remember they reached out, and they were asking different people’s opinions about what they should call this. I remember thinking I wasn’t crazy about the name “Americana.” The organization was being set up. Before that, there was alternative country and alternative rock. It was creeping in there already. Now, it seems like everything is called Americana, anything that isn’t “commercially successful.” It’s become this humongous umbrella now.

It was important back then. Record labels are so uptight about how to market something. If they couldn’t put it in some bag, they wouldn’t sign you. It created a whole other genre, mainly for the benefit of the record companies and radio. If Americana had been in existence when I was trying to get a record deal in the ‘80s, I would have been picked up a lot sooner. It was pretty important when it did get established. I was just thinking about the groups of songwriters that had been around for years and years before the Americana flag was hoisted. I remember people asking, “Where have you been all this time?” Well, “I’ve been right here under your nose. You didn’t know where to put me, so…”

Earle: I don’t know what Americana music means. Well, I mean, all I know is that evidently it’s not me, because once it started being called Americana music, I stopped getting nominated for the Grammys. [laughs] In my record label that I had at the time which was called E-Squared, most of the records that I was producing were for my own label. Ray Kennedy and I had a studio, and we had a thing going there. We were making I Feel Alright, and Lu came in and sang on “You're Still Standing There.” She liked the way her voice sounded. So, it was just a thing that happened. Lu happened to be living in Nashville, and I've known her for years, literally since we’ve both been bumming since we were teenagers. We really were both from the same circle of people. I had been gone for a while. My drug habit had taken me out.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Williams: The album didn’t change that much, musically. It just got better each step of the way. As far as how long it took, that had to do with the business part of things. The ‘90s were a crazy time. By the time I did get a record deal, then I found myself in between all these labels, because labels would start and then fold. People were getting laid off or left to start new labels. There was a lot of upheaval and chaos. I had been on Rough Trade, RCA Records and Chameleon Elektra, which went under. I had to shop for a new label. That’s when Rick Rubin signed me to American Recordings. Then, we got the album finished. It was in the can for an entire year or more, because American Recordings was going under. Rick was in the process of switching distribution between Warner and Sony, so the album was held up. That’s when Danny Goldberg, who was running Mercury Records at the time in New York, stepped in and started trying to sway Rick to sell the masters to Mercury so they could put the album out. Then, there was this whole legal dispute. 

In the meantime, I’m getting blamed because I’m this neurotic perfectionist who wanted to do the album over again. I had worked with Gurf Morlix on the Rough Trade album and the Sweet Old World album. When it came time to do Car Wheels, we’d cut a bunch of stuff. We had some rough mixes of the whole album. This is when Steve Earle invited me to come in and sing on his album [1996’s I Feel Alright] for a song called “You’re Still Standing There.” He was making the album with Ray Kennedy at the Room and Board in Nashville. I had just moved to Nashville a few years before that. I went in to sing with Steve, and I loved the sound he was getting. He gave me a copy of his rough mixes of El Corazon. I basically compared his roughs with mine of Car Wheels. I liked the way his sounded much better. His vocals were more outfront, and it was a bigger sound. I was trying to grow. I didn’t want to make another Sweet Old World. At first, we were just going to cut a few tracks, but we got on a roll and ended up recutting the whole thing. In the process of all this, Gurf was not a happy camper. The important thing was the album, not how Gurf felt. Unfortunately, my friendship with him fell apart. We’ve been estranged ever since then, not because I wanted to be. I’ve reached out and tried to reconcile. He just doesn’t want to. People go in all the time and do stuff and then redo it. It’s not that big of a deal. It was a lot of unnecessary drama. 

It’s not that there’s this amazing version of Car Wheels floating around out there. There’s definitely a bootleg of it. I was doing this interview with this guy from the Netherlands years and years ago, and he told me his next-door neighbor was a big collector of bootlegs. This guy had found a bootleg copy of Car Wheels, an unreleased version. He said, “It’s better…but I get it. You put out this one because the label wanted you to. It’s more commercial sounding.” I went, “OK, whatever…” I put it out because it sounds better. I mean, come on. The version of every album I put out, the production sounds better. I was trying to get the albums that I made to sound like the albums I liked. I love the production on the first Pretenders album. I love how [Chrissie Hynde’s] vocal sounds on it.

It was hard to move on from that album. People expected that. If I had made another Car Wheels album, people would have said I would have made another exactly the same. So, I just had to move on. I’ve always been progressive in my thinking. I like a lot of different kinds of music. Now, I just did an album with Charles Lloyd and his band.

Car Wheels in the Studio with Earle

Williams: I was really insecure in the studio, and Steve was not. We did butt heads several times, but that’s just because I hadn’t made that many albums to speak of. He already knew how things went. Plus, he’s pretty headstrong and likes to get in there and get it done. I was questioning myself a lot. I wanted to do my vocals over again on “Lake Charles,” and Steve said, “Lu, your vocal is great. You’re singing your ass off.” I’m like, “I don’t know…” He goes, “Lu, when are you going to learn to trust somebody? Come on.” Another time, he said, “Lu, it’s just a record, OK? Get over it.” [laughs] I always liked to work more deliberately. If I wanted to try something over, I liked being able to. There was a lot of that kind of thing going on. Over the years, I’ve gotten so much better in terms of learning how to sing in the studio and just being a better singer, in general. Now, I can go in and very rarely have to fix anything. I can just sing, and I don’t get all pitchy and all this and that. Back then, when you think about it, I had only done two real albums. I mean, those first two Folkways albums [1979’s Ramblin' and 1980’s Happy Woman Blues] were done so quickly. 

The first real album with more production was the [self-titled] Rough Trade album. Even that was very low budget and in probably about six weeks. Then, there was Sweet Old World. So, I had had very little experience. I was still second guessing a lot of stuff, and it would understandably annoy Steve. But we’ve grown over the years. We’re working together right now out on the road with Dwight Yoakam on this LSD Tour. I’m doing so many of the songs from this album. Steve has been coming up to sit in on “Joy” and “Drunken Angel” (and plays harmonica on that). We were talking about other songs we could collaborate on during this tour, and he said, “Well, ‘Concrete and Barbed Wire,’ I sang on that on the album, we should do that one!” I had forgotten he had sang on that one. That’s been cool working with him out here. We have that bond. I give him a lot of credit for how the album came together. Him and Ray Kennedy were really responsible for the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. After that, he had to leave and go out on the road. I still wanted to add some harmonies. We had a chance to work with Roy Bittan in L.A. at Rumbo Studios and went out there to do some overdubs and harmonies and things. That’s when I had Emmylou [Harris] come in and sing, and Jim Lauderdale came out, too. That was the icing on the cake.

“Jackson” was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, between Gurf and me. All the tracks were cut, but this was one of the songs I wasn’t happy with. I kept trying to sing it, and I wasn’t feeling it. I kept telling Gurf we needed to recut it. He kept saying no, and he said, “You just need to sing it again.” I kept trying to sing it. It wasn’t working. He wouldn’t back down. That was probably the one track I wanted to redo with Steve. That was one of the reasons. It was a combination of that and how I loved the way Steve’s rough mixes sounded. He was working in this little bitty studio. I loved the vocal sound. The thing is, the other guys in the band were into it. Donald Lindley and John Ciambotti were both like, “Yes, this is great. Let’s keep going. Why not?” They all stuck around and were fine -- except for Gurf.

Earle: My understanding was that I was making the whole record. I don’t think that was Gurf’s understanding. Maybe we talked about that initially, but by the time we actually started recording, as far as I knew, we were rerecording the whole record. I think originally they thought maybe they just do a few songs to get on the radio. I think it would have been hard to fit what we were doing and what they already had in the can together. For better or worse, Ray and I had a kind of sound in that studio. That's why Lu wanted to come record there.

What was having an impact on my style at the time was listening to a lot of Beatles records. That's what I was interested in -- listening to older Beatles records and especially how that related to the countrier stuff that the Beatles did. That's what Ray and I were doing. If you listen to my record I Feel Alright and Car Wheels, they sounded similar when it left my hands. When they finally put it back together after Danny Goldberg, basically, Rick Rubin was unable to get the record put out by either Sony or Warner. I think he had deals with both. For some reason, they passed on it, and they took it to Danny Goldberg, who was at Mercury at the time. He bought it and put it out, and the rest is history, you know.

Some of the stuff that we did and worked the hardest on didn't end up on the record because it got erased when it left my hands. I don't know why anybody would erase tracks, but they did. “Joy” was a really big deal, just because at the time, the way we are, it was so group oriented -- maybe more than anything I'd ever been involved with before. We originally had a turntable on it, and we approached it almost like a hip-hop record. All that stuff got taken off later. “Metal Firecrackers” is still one of my favorites. Actually, that's the one mix that's my rough mix that left the studio exactly the way it is. Nobody else touched that. They went back, and they tried to beat the mix and erased a lot of stuff on it. It just didn't feel the same, and they ended up calling Ray and getting our original rough mix that we left the studio with. That’s what’s on the record. The rest of it, Jim [Scott] mixed. He did a great job. Jim was doing the closest to what Ray and I did. So, he was the perfect person to go back and try to do the archaeology and try to get it back to where we left it. I've always loved the way it sounds.

“2 Kool to B 4-Gotten” is one of my favorites, too. That's another one that kind of comes out as a hip-hop place for me. That drumbeat was and is a hip-hop drumbeat. It's almost like all those loops that people use over a sample, and sample over and over again. That was my idea. That wasn't what Donald [Lindley] was playing when they came in with the song. That was “hey, let’s try this.” That one, I will take credit for.

On “Drunken Angel,” that main resonator guitar and harmonica are me. I think I played guitar on a lot of stuff, and I can't remember everything. It's just one of those things that she and I have totally different, at least at the time, experiences and memories of Blaze Foley. I knew him in Texas. I left Texas, partially, to get away from Blaze Foley. She has this way of writing epitaphs, and she writes epitaphs that are art. She’s really, really good at it.

I remember the moment of going in, and once I got into it and started listening to the songs, we recorded one day and got two or three tracks the first day, I was looking forward to what we're going to do for the next month of my life. We tracked it in about 10 days and then went into overdubs. I just thought, “God, this is a really, really great batch of songs.” And I felt this responsibility to step up to the plate and make sure that they were done justice.

Hip-Hop Inspiration

Earle: I listened to a lot of hip-hop in the ‘80s ‘90s. My hip-hop is kind of archaic. It tends to be more intense, political stuff. I like Public Enemy and N.W.A, partially because I'm from Texas and I have a soft spot for the Geto Boys, but especially Willie D's solo records. That was all Roland and those guys in New Orleans that made those records. The period I was listening to hip-hop pretty intensely and almost as much hip-hop and anything else was when The Chronic came out. Dre came into his own. That's what I gauged it all by. 

Most of the hip-hop grooves are coming from Lu and her guitar playing. Lucinda has this weird thing that she does with finger picks and is almost like frailing a banjo. It’s all built around her guitar as much as possible. I was trying not to make a Steve Earle record, but it sounds similar to my records. We had a drum sound, and we were using no reverb and a lot of compression, that was our thing. I think there ended up being some reverb on it after it left my hands a little bit, but you know, Jim actually did the same thing that we did.

According to Earle, the quote attributed to him where he says Car Wheels was "the least amount of fun I've had working on a record" is not true.

Earle: That’s completely not true. That’s a misquote from somewhere. That's a couple of years after the record. So, I don't think I said that. That was taken out of context. There were parts of making Car Wheels that got contentious towards the end. Whatever the history of that is, whatever you think you know about the history of that is wrong, because most of what the public assume they knew about what happened when we were making Car Wheels and why it took so long between the time that we recorded it in Nashville and the release which is, you know, three years. It was recorded in 1996. Whatever Lu remembers as the version of events -- it’s her record. I'm totally okay with it being whatever her version of events is.

The only thing I can say for sure that happened is there was a deadline. Everybody knew that we had to be finished, because I had to go back out on the road. I had a day job. Everybody knew that, and we got to the end. We had the record virtually finished and then we still had some songs that we didn't have vocals Lu was happy with. From that point on, I said, “Okay, we can come back to work on it on such and such a date.” That was several months away. Lu and people around her decided they couldn't wait that long, so the record started getting handed off to other producers to try and finish it sooner than I could get back to work on it. That's why it got taken out of my hands, simply a matter of a deadline. 

There were excuses that were used to justify that later based on -- I made a remark during a radio interview. I said we'd hit that sort of snag at the end after things were going smooth as silk for weeks. Right at the end, we were doing vocals and had to bail out without the record being finished, which was frustrating. At the time, as far as I knew, we were coming back to work on it two months later. Keep in mind, she had been working on this record for years. She'd already recorded the whole thing and thrown it away. I was presiding over the end of a long relationship. Gurf Morlix played on this record. They had been together, and he had been producing the records and all of a sudden he was sidelined to being just a guitar player on a record. It was a hard thing to navigate. The music was so exciting, and everybody just put their head down, and we did it. There was a little thing hanging in the air, you know, about Gurf not being the producer anymore. I was friends with both Gurf and Lucinda. It was a strange position for me to be in.

So, in a radio interview, I said as just a joke that “I don't think I'm going to produce girls anymore.” I had just made two records for women in a row. It was a joke that was more about all the times I've been married and all that shit, and it was one of those conversations that was going on. Somebody made Lu aware of that remark at some point, so she got mad at me at that point. But we never went through a period where we weren’t speaking. We ran into each other during the tour after Car Wheels came out. I sat down with her. We were never estranged at all. That [comment] was just not true. This is one of the things people think they know what they're talking about. So, that's all there is to that.

Grammy-Winning Moment

Williams: The truth of the matter is I was shocked beyond belief when all the press came out about [the album]. Then, I got nominated for a Grammy -- and then won the Grammy. Ironically, it was nominated at the same time Steve’s El Corazon and Emmylou Harris’ [Western Wall - The Tucson Sessions] album. All three of us. My two friends and artistic colleagues all up for a Grammy at the same time. It was a little awkward, to say the least. I remember hearing my name called out, and I was sitting in the same section with Steve and Emmy. I was so shellshocked, and I got up and started walking down the aisle. Steve was kind of like the kids in grade school and the boy pulling your pigtails. He goes real loud in front of everybody, “Lu Lu, you’re going the wrong way. You’re supposed to go down the other way.” I thought, “Oh, great, Steve. I’m already nervous enough as it is, and now, you’ve gotta tease me as I go up to get my award?”

Earle: I was nominated, and she won, so I kinda won, too. It was mixed emotions, but it was a good night. Emmylou Harris beat me the year before with Wrecking Ball, which I played on half of. So, the two things that beat me those two years in a row were both records I was involved in. So, I kind of won.