Throughout the first half of the Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom!, a letter floats in and out of our view, presented to the reader always as if a secret is about to be revealed, then withdrawn unread; handed from one person to another as the story wanders through the actual and mythical South; held by someone under a bug-spattered porchlight and still paused there when the scene dissolves in the heat. It’s a letter from Charles Bon, who may or may not be already married, to Judith Sutpen, who may or may not be his fiancée nonetheless–written four years after Bon has vanished into the depths of the Civil War with Judith’s brother Henry.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is that letter, and no less. Except that it’s been six years since we last heard from Lucinda Williams. Like the letter, the record has been flashed here and there: finished and then undone, about to be released, capriciously withdrawn. And even though we understand at some level that the game of show-and-don’t-tell is driven by the author’s obsessive fucked-upness more than by the plot . . . well, that might be true of Mr. Faulkner also. And as each chance for revealing the contents passes untaken, their weight increases.
When it arrives, it turns out not to be the contents precisely we were waiting for so much as their material form, the handwriting which bears the grain of the voice. And perhaps that’s the most remarkable thing about Williams: how she, in what should be the easiest trick but it’s almost impossible, sounds exactly like herself. She does so even if–or exactly because–that self is culled from years of listening, of borrowing and commandeering: from Memphis Minnie and Hibbing Bobby, Janis Joplin and Hank Williams, from the whole Folkways catalogue and Flannery O’Connor too. Listening to Car Wheels, you hear all of that. No, you hear only her–but still these are songs in the constant act of collecting their history. From Macon to Jackson, Rosedale to Lake Charles, Opelousas to Greenville, the record travels like that letter, gathering up each secret into its secret.
And does not stop traveling once arrived. Car Wheels is a transcript of motion on every level: the author’s endless journey from studio to studio, her characters’ wanderings back and forth across the South; and of course the tires rolling throughout the title song. A traditional ballad-form from England driven by a rockin’ little combo from the guitar town, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” sounds out the struggle between blues and folk that has always been Williams’s musical drama. The song empties verse by verse into the title refrain; we hear it almost 20 times. Against the mysterious, perpetual driving, the song sets a series of canonical scenes: Loretta on the kitchen radio (but already the wheels are rolling) a dusty suitcase pulled from the closet (the wheels) the slam of a screen door (still) murmur of voices from the front seat (rolling).
Each detail is unerring: if Loretta Lynn sings only half as well as Patsy did, she’s nonetheless the wife of endurance and making do, Cline the crazy romantic. The suddenly-needed suitcase, an emblem itself, also echoes Kitty Wells’s “Dust on the Bible.” And so on; from such care the story arises, not told so much as unconcealed–of the war at home and of a family unable to take seed, on the drift again. But like the family, the song won’t quiet into that slice of life, that hardscrabble narrative. There’s something else: the afterlife.
Otherwise told from the kid’s perspective, “Car Wheels” jumps tracks at the last moment. Now we’re on the outside looking in on the “child in the backseat about four or five years, lookin’ out the window, little bit of dirt mixed with tears.” The story, the ongoing drive of the instruments, all the insistent motion has been a sort of feint, the present tense a scam–all of it meant to maneuver us to the spot where we see the scene the singer can’t stop seeing decades later. That’s why the wheels answer everything like an “Amen,” and why they have to be mentioned obsessively: in the memory play this turns out to be, they are the essential fact. They do not begin or end.
The capacity to slide backward and forward through time–so that the mythic moment is always happening–also fires the onanistic torch ‘n’ twang of opener “Right in Time.” “Not a day goes by I don’t think of you,” she begins to a lover gone. Yet the chorus insists, “The way you move is right in time with me”; in Lucinda-time, if the memory can be held in mind, it’s in the present. And to prove that she can make the absent one present enough, she takes off her watch and earrings (the music quieting) her “bracelets and everything” (the music shucked off) to “lie on my back and moan at the ceiling.” And she does: “ohhhhh . . . my baby.” Then the music comes also, a 10-year-old echo of “Passionate Kisses.” When was the last great song about jerking off?
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.