By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Not all the writing is so stunningly detailed, so writerly. There's a handful of the easy sentimentalizing which sugarcoated Sweet Old World ("Drunken angel, you're on the other side"), and a recasting of the hard-woman tradition as New Age assertiveness training ("You got no right to take my joy, I want it back"--repeat as needed). But the words don't own the story; they don't determine the about.
Bon's letter turns out to be a love letter, written in stove polish on finely antique stationery sacked from a Southern aristocrat's mansion. Williams's voice is just so, desperate measure scraped onto fallen gentility. If the words waver the voice is unyielding, the I-am and the true thing; the reason they keep having music. Not moment by moment but ceaselessly, six years distilled into a beautiful hour-long emergency.
We now know the probation, the durance, wasn't because the album was unreleasable. Amid all the other intimations--she's perfectionist, she's difficult and cracked (does anyone doubt these?)--the most apparent cause goes unmentioned: the production of the sickly-Sweet Old World was awful. If her writing half-wasted the record, the static, dulcet production sank it into a sugar coma.
Miraculously, despite the army of cooks on Car Wheels (produced by twangtrust, co-pro'd by Williams, overdubbed by Roy Bittan, mixed by goddamn Rick Rubin, etc.) the production never gets soupy: the welter of Dixiefied string things keens behind her blues and keeps her folk ways well-grooved.
Often in the same song: much of Car Wheels is a folk take written on a blue line (you'll even find a slyly countrified Blind Faith lick courtesy of ousted genius Gurf Morlix, now only a ghost among the record's ghosts). "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" wanders into a juke joint to discover the shade of Robert Johnson, but saves itself from the tarpit of blues homage with a squeezebox and a folksy recitation of every sign hanging behind the bar. Just her voice listing off the mundane and knowing it's the world, dissolving into the elusive, particular phrase "june bug vs. hurricane." A defining image? Another sign tattering above the register? The ghost of something, of reference itself.
In a record given over to the South's ghosts, nothing is more haunted than the blues/folk relationship. Williams, remember, closed her two previous albums with covers by, respectively, Howlin' Wolf and Nick Drake. It's the secret Bon's letter can't tell, the one which every other secret in the South is about--race itself. It's how she wrestles this unpayable debt, more than her love of the places and scenes, which makes Lucinda Williams essential, a Southern music essentialist.
Car Wheels ends by restating its terms for the record, but this time in the original: the hard blues of "Joy" and the pretty ballad "Jackson." But she doesn't resolve the history--she can't, maybe she doesn't need to--so much as play it out one more time in her own voice. Look, they're the same song: "I'm gonna go to Slidell and look for my joy. . . . I'm gonna go to West Memphis and look for my joy" and so on, goes the first. The second: "Once I get to Lafayette I'm not gonna mind one bit. . . . Once I get to Baton Rouge I won't cry a tear for you." Either way, heading off to discover the thing that promises and promises and is not there.
The promise is a pretext for the endless haunted motion of ghosts and secrets (as in Faulkner) the letter or the voice that keeps traveling ("The South. Jesus.) because what could stop it? already passed through the worst thing (No wonder you folks) and become its own ghost (all outlive yourself by years) wandering from place to place (and years and years") with its terrible astonishing quitlessness.