Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

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Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
CarWheelson aGravelRoad.jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedJune 30, 1998
StudioRoom and Board Studio in Nashville, Tennessee; Rumbo Studio in Canoga Park, California
Genre Roots rock, alternative country, country blues, folk
Label Mercury
Producer Roy Bittan, Steve Earle, Ray Kennedy, Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams chronology
Sweet Old World
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the fifth studio album by American singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. It was recorded and co-produced by Williams in Nashville, Tennessee and Canoga Park, California, before being released on June 30, 1998, by Mercury Records. The album features guest appearances by Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.


Car Wheels on a Gravel Road won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and received a nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for the single "Can't Let Go". It was Williams' first album to go gold, [1] and remains her best-selling album to date, with 872,000 copies sold in the US as of October 2014. [2] Universally acclaimed by critics, it was voted as the best album of 1998 in The Village Voice 's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll.


In 1992, Lucinda Williams released her fourth album, Sweet Old World , on Chameleon Records. [1] To support the album, Williams went on an Australian concert tour with Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter. [1] While on tour, Carpenter recorded a cover of Williams' 1988 song "Passionate Kisses". The cover reached number four on the Hot Country Songs chart and won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song. [1] The popularity of "Passionate Kisses" and subsequent covers of other Williams' songs from musicians like Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty brought Williams a newfound level of attention, and her next album became highly anticipated within the country music scene. [3]


The album was a total clusterfuck.

– Lucinda Williams [4]

Chameleon Records folded after the release of Sweet Old World, so Williams signed with American Recordings. [5] The initial recording sessions for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road lasted from February to March 1995 in Austin, Texas, with longtime producer Gurf Morlix. [6] Williams was unhappy with her vocals in these sessions, and decided to start the entire album from scratch. [lower-alpha 1] "I was trying to grow. I didn't want to make another Sweet Old World" said Williams. [5] Morlix believes ninety percent of the album was finished when Williams made her decision. [9] Recording sessions resumed later that year in Nashville, Tennessee. [9]

During this period, Williams was invited to sing backing vocals for the Steve Earle song "You're Still Standing There". [5] Earle was working with producer Ray Kennedy, who accentuated Earle's vocals. [5] Williams liked this style of production, and asked Earle and Kennedy to rerecord several of the songs she was unhappy with. [5] Morlix was infuriated by this decision, and resented the two new producers. According to Williams: "Those guys all started vibin' each other, and I'm goin', 'Can we just get this record made, please?" [10] By this point, the relationship between Williams and Morlix was irremediable, and Morlix stepped down as producer. [lower-alpha 2] Morlix remained on the project as a guitarist, but was not credited as a producer. [6]

With Earle and Kennedy now serving as full-time producers, the recording sessions recommenced in the summer of 1996 in Nashville. [6] These sessions were recorded on a Telefunken V76 microphone preamplifier connected to a twenty-four track tape recorder. [8] For the first time in Williams' career, she recorded the songs live with her backing band, as opposed to recording each instrument and vocal take individually. Kennedy said: "That's why it became such a great record—because it was so super-charged with her great vocal, which she had never really tried before." [8] Kennedy did not include reverberation, and instead induced compression from a 1176 Peak Limiter. [8]

Steve Earle co-produced the majority of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with Ray Kennedy. Steve Earle, Cambridge Festivals 2001-2014 (966622239).jpg
Steve Earle co-produced the majority of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with Ray Kennedy.

Earle was influenced by the country music the Beatles made in the early 1960s, as well as hip hop production. Some songs like "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" feature hip hop drum beats, and the original version of "Joy" featured a direct-drive turntable. [5] Earle noted the hip hop style of production arose from a desire to experiment. [5] The recording sessions lasted around ten days, after which Kennedy added overdubs. [5] Kennedy overdubbed many of the instruments, including the acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, tambourines, and backing vocals. [8]

Williams was self-conscious of her vocals, and was intimidated by Earle's "bulldog" attitude. [12] Tensions between the two began to emerge towards the end of the sessions, although Earle says this was simply because he knew he would eventually have to go back on tour and leave. [5] In the years after the album's release, Earle was misquoted as saying Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was "the least amount of fun I've had working on a record." Earle believes the misquote likely arose from a radio interview in which he mentioned his frustration at having to leave right before the album was finished. "This is one of the things people think they know what they're talking about. So, that's all there is to that" said Earle. [5]

When Earle left to finish his tour, the majority of the album was finished, although Williams was still unhappy with some of her vocals. Earle was under the impression that once the tour ended, he would return and rerecord the few remaining songs. [5] Instead of waiting for the tour to end, Williams hired musician Roy Bittan, who took the rough mixes to Los Angeles, California. [13] Bittan added organ and accordion instrumentation to eight of the songs, and made separate overdubs to the guitars. [6] Some additional singers were brought in to add backing harmonies, such as Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale. [5] Jim Scott served as the audio mixer, and worked on an AMS Neve console and two Studer tape recorders. [8] Scott took on a minimalist approach to mixing, as he wanted Williams' vocals and guitar to be the most prominent aspect of the album. [8] "So if you're going to play bass, guitar and drums along with her, you're going to play like she sings" said Scott. [8] The process took a couple of weeks, after which it was mastered by Kennedy in Nashville, in the midst of the 1998 Nashville tornado outbreak. [14]

Music and lyrics

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road explores a variety of music genres, including country, pop, blues, and folk. [15] A genre commonly associated with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is Americana, although Williams argues that the genre did not formally exist until the creation of the Americana Music Honors & Awards in 2002. [5] According to Williams: "Before that, there was alternative country and alternative rock. [Americana] was creeping in there already." [5]


Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was fully mixed and ready for release by the summer of 1997, but it was delayed when American Recordings folded. [16] Rubin was in the process of switching distribution from Warner Bros. Records Inc. to Sony Music Entertainment Inc., and as a result, Williams was no longer signed with a label. [5] Eventually, Williams' manager Frank Callari called Rubin and convinced him to sell the masters to another label. [16] The masters were purchased by Danny Goldberg of Mercury Records for a reported $450,000. [17]

By this point, Williams had been working on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for nearly three years, and fans were growing impatient. [6] Fans and music journalists blamed the lengthy recording process on Williams' perfectionism, and the album became a running joke on online music boards. [6] In September 1997, The New York Times Magazine published a damning article on Williams, which portrayed her as an incompetent and stubborn musician. [18] This portrayal was strengthen when the article took an out of context quote by Callari, who described her as a "bowl of corn flakes." [6] Williams was dismayed by how the media chose to focus on the behind the scenes issues plaguing the album's release as opposed to the music itself. [6] Some journalists felt the detractions against Williams were sexist, as male artists known for their perfectionism like Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty did not receive the same negative treatment for lengthy recording sessions. [19]

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was released on June 30, 1998. [20] It debuted on the Billboard 200 at number sixty-five, and sold 21,000 copies in its first week. [20]

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Contemporary reviews
(published in 1998)
Review scores
Chicago Sun-Times Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg [21]
Entertainment Weekly A− [22]
The Guardian Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar empty.svg [23]
Los Angeles Times Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar half.svg [24]
NME 9/10 [25]
The Village Voice A+ [26]
Professional ratings
Retrospective reviews
(published after 1998)
Review scores
AllMusic Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg [27]
Pitchfork 9.5/10 [28]
Rolling Stone Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg [29]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg [30]

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was met with widespread critical acclaim. [1] Reviewing for Entertainment Weekly in July 1998, David Browne found Williams' hard-edged evocations of Southern rural life refreshing amid a music market overrun by timid, mass-produced female artists. [22] Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times said her "resonant, resolute and reassuring" answers to the questions romantic passion and pain pose are as ambitious as the "rich", commanding sound she crafted with producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy. [24] NME magazine said Williams transfigures "American roots rock into a heady, soul-baring and, would you believe, unabashedly sexy art form", [25] while Uncut credited the album with "repositioning country-blues roots rock as contemporary Southern art" and offering listeners "a sense of life and place that leap from every line and guitar lick". [31] Village Voice critic Robert Christgau argued at the time that she proves herself to be the era's "most accomplished record-maker" by honing traditional popular music composition, understated vocal emotions, and realistic narratives colored by her native experiences and values: [32]

Williams's cris de coeur and evocations of rural rootlessness—about juke joints, macho guitarists, alcoholic poets, loved ones locked away in prison, loved ones locked away even more irreparably in the past—are always engaging in themselves. And they mean even more as a whole, demonstrating not that old ways are best, although that meaningless idea may well appeal to her, but that they're very much with us. [33]

At the end of 1998, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was named one of the year's best albums in many critics' top-ten lists. It topped the annual Pazz & Jop poll and earned Williams a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, although AllMusic's Steve Huey later said it was her "least folk-oriented record". [1] In a five-star retrospective review,'s Kim Ruehl credited the album with solidifying Williams' status as one of the best singer-songwriters of all time, as she "single-handedly marries the genres of traditional and alternative country, roots rock and American folk music so smoothly, it almost feels like magic." [34] In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine called the record an alternative country masterpiece and ranked it number 304 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and ranked 305 in 2012 revised list. [35] In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), David McGee and Milo Miles said it is a masterpiece of timeless quality and greater depth than anything else by Williams, who offers a perfect collection of "faces, fights, keening swamp guitar and sighing accordion, strong drink and stronger lust in an album about places shadowed by memory". [30] The music writers of The Associated Press voted it one of the ten best pop albums of the 1990s. [36] It was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die [37] and in the third edition of Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums (2000), in which it was voted number 836. [38]

Based on such rankings, the aggregate website Acclaimed Music lists Car Wheels on a Gravel Road as the 303rd most acclaimed album in history. It also ranks as the 60th most acclaimed album of the 1990s and the fifth most from 1998. [39]

Track listing

All tracks by Lucinda Williams except where noted. [40]

1."Right in Time"4:35
2."Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"4:44
3."2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten"4:42
4."Drunken Angel"3:20
5."Concrete and Barbed Wire"3:08
6."Lake Charles"5:27
7."Can't Let Go" (Randy Weeks)3:28
8."I Lost It"3:31
9."Metal Firecracker"3:30
11."Still I Long For Your Kiss" (Williams, Duane Jarvis)4:09
Total length:51:40
Deluxe edition bonus tracks
  1. "Down the Big Road Blues" (Mattie Delaney) – 4:07
  2. "Out of Touch" – 3:50
  3. "Still I Long For Your Kiss" (Alternate version) (Williams, Jarvis) – 5:00
Deluxe edition bonus disc
  1. "Pineola" – 4:18
  2. "Something About What Happens When We Talk" – 3:44
  3. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" – 4:42
  4. "Metal Firecracker" – 3:39
  5. "Right in Time" – 4:32
  6. "Drunken Angel" – 3:27
  7. "Greenville" – 3:46
  8. "Still I Long For Your Kiss" (Williams, Jarvis) – 4:39
  9. "2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten" – 4:53
  10. "Can't Let Go" (Weeks) – 3:51
  11. "Hot Blood" – 7:38
  12. "Changed The Locks" – 4:19
  13. "Joy" – 6:08



Chart (1998)Peak
Canadian RPM Country Albums14
U.S. Billboard 200 [41] 65


  1. A 1998 article by the Los Angeles Times states that another possible reason these sessions were scrapped was because American Recordings founder Rick Rubin was also unhappy with the vocals. [7] Ray Kennedy backed up this claim in a 2020 article published by Mix . [8]
  2. Some sources claim Williams fired Morlix, [11] although Morlix states he stepped down on his own accord. [9]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Huey (a) n.d.
  2. Emily White (October 10, 2014). "Lucinda Williams Tops Folk Albums Chart, U2 Hits Alternative Songs Milestone". Billboard.
  3. Huey (a) n.d.; Smith 1998
  4. Anon. 2019, p. 72.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Scott 2018.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Anon. 1998a.
  7. McCall 1998.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Flans 2020.
  9. 1 2 Nichols 2000.
  10. Wilonsky 1998.
  11. Frey 1997; Jarrett 2014, p. 250
  12. Scott 2018; Anon. 2019 , p. 73
  13. Anon. 1998a; Scott 2018
  14. Mundy 1998; Flans 2020
  15. Verna 1998, p. 20.
  16. 1 2 Anon. 2019, p. 74.
  17. Anon. 1998a; Scott 2018
  18. Anon. 1998a; Mundy 1998
  19. Anon. 1998a; McCall 1998
  20. 1 2 Mayfield 1998, p. 92.
  21. Houlihan-Skilton 1998.
  22. 1 2 Browne, David (July 10, 1998). "Dandy Williams: Much delayed and breathlessly awaited, Lucinda's gritty new cycle of songs Wheels so good". Entertainment Weekly . New York (440): 74. Archived from the original on March 22, 2017. Retrieved May 12, 2011.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  23. Sweeting, Adam (July 10, 1998). "Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)". The Guardian . London.
  24. 1 2 Cromelin, Richard (August 9, 1998). "Lucinda Williams, 'Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,' Mercury". Los Angeles Times . Archived from the original on March 3, 2017. Retrieved March 27, 2015.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  25. 1 2 Martin, Gavin (July 25, 1998). "Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road". NME . London. Archived from the original on August 17, 2000. Retrieved November 11, 2011.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  26. Christgau 1998a.
  27. Huey (b) n.d.
  28. Pelly, Jenn (October 28, 2018). "Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road". Pitchfork . Retrieved October 28, 2018.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  29. Edwards, Gavin (October 30, 2006). "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Reissue)". Rolling Stone . New York. Retrieved March 27, 2015.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  30. 1 2 McGee, David; Miles, Milo (2004). "Lucinda Williams". In Brackett, Nathan; Hoard, Christian (eds.). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th ed.). London: Fireside Books. pp.  875–876. ISBN   0-7432-0169-8.
  31. "Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road CD Album". CD Universe . Retrieved March 27, 2015.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  32. Christgau 1998a; Christgau 1998b
  33. Christgau 1998b.
  34. Ruehl, Kim. "Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Deluxe Edition". . Retrieved March 27, 2015.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  35. "500 Greatest Albums of All Time Rolling Stone's definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time". Rolling Stone. 2012. Retrieved September 9, 2019.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  36. "Top Albums of the 1990s" . Retrieved April 13, 2018.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  37. Robert Dimery; Michael Lydon (March 23, 2010). 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: Revised and Updated Edition. Universe. ISBN   978-0-7893-2074-2.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  38. Colin Larkin (2006). All Time Top 1000 Albums (3rd ed.). Virgin Books. p. 259. ISBN   0-7535-0493-6.
  39. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road". Acclaimed Music . Retrieved February 22, 2020.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  40. Anon. (1998). Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (liner notes). Lucinda Williams. Mercury Records.
  41. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – Lucinda Williams > Charts & Awards > Billboard Albums at AllMusic . Retrieved December 8, 2011.

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