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