Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels In Gear

Singer/songwriter's new album is her first in six years.

Lucinda Williams doesn't use the bright lights of a big city to find inspiration for

her well-crafted folk songs. Instead, the singer/songwriter turns to the rural

landscape of her native Louisiana and the mundane events of daily life that

often sail by unnoticed.

"I like to try to take a slice of life and describe it and make it interesting ... in the

same way poets do when they write," said Williams, 45, daughter of acclaimed

poet Miller Williams.

Slices of life -- her life -- abound on her fifth LP, Car Wheels on a

Gravel Road. Slated for a June 30 release, the album finds Williams

plumbing her own experiences to build foundations for such songs as "Lake


"An old boyfriend of mine I was involved with for about four years died ... and I

wanted to somehow touch on that, but also just kinda try to show a little

something about him," Williams said about "Lake Charles" as she discussed the

new album in the Los Angeles offices of Mercury Records.

She decided to depict the town of Lake Charles, La., in her song "as a way of

[creating] atmosphere. [When you write] 'driving in a yellow El Camino' -- not

just driving in a car, but what kind of car -- those things make a difference. What

you're listening to on the radio, what kind of car you're driving, what town you're

in ... you got to get it all in there to make it interesting."

Williams' gritty folk-rock tunes frequently turn to visual imagery as a way of

bringing songs to life. Her lyrics are rooted in the physical world, as in the lines

"Cotton fields stretching miles and miles/ Hank's voice on the radio/ Telephone

poles, trees and wires fly on by." It's as if Williams takes the listener by the arm

into her musical landscape.

"[Poets] might write about a car wreck they saw on the side of a road, or a cat

sitting in a window," Williams said. "They just describe things, and it's always

done in poetry. No one ever questions it. I'm really just approaching things in a

similar way."

That approach has -- since Williams released her debut LP, Ramblin', in

1979 -- won her the approval of a cult-size contingent of ardent admirers -- a

group that happens to include a hefty number of fellow artists. Over the years,

Williams has watched as the likes of Tom Petty, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris

and Mary-Chapin Carpenter have covered her material. Carpenter's rendition of

Williams' song


">"Passionate Kisses" (RealAudio excerpt of Williams' version) won

Grammys for both women in 1994.

Williams' own career as a recording artist hit a snag when she embarked on the

creation of her new disc. A slice-of-life tale all its own, the making and

scheduling of the record stretched out to a full six years from the release date of

her previous album.

The tracks themselves came together over a period of years, Williams said. Two

of the songs, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" and "Metal Firecracker," rattled

around in the back of her mind as sentence fragments or riffs before they gelled

into complete compositions during her time alone on the road.

"I write a lot when I'm on the road," she said. "There's something about being

still and being quiet and getting away from the phone. I get inspired a lot when

I'm traveling ... when I'm in motel rooms by myself.

" 'Car wheels on a gravel road' ... I had that line in my head for years, and it

finally just came together," she said. "I had a little riff for 'Metal Firecracker,' and I

came up with the chorus while I was on the road in '92. I came up with the

verses late one night in a Nashville [Tenn.] motel room."

Contributing to the holdup of the album's release were a change of labels and a

switch of producers, from alt-country king Steve Earle to Roy Bittan (Bruce

Springsteen, Chicago).

Despite Earle's departure from the role of album producer, Williams praised his

guitar work on Car Wheels. "Steve plays great rhythm guitar with a real

edge to it," she said. "He leans into it this way that the band really picked up on."

Another player on the album sessions was guitarist Bo Ramsey, 46, who went

into the studio cold, not having heard any of the music. Ramsey wound up

lending leads to "Can't Let Go" and "Joy" and, afterward, signing on for

Williams' current concert tour.

"Well, it was a really kind-of unique situation," Ramsey said. "A lot of the tracks

had been cut. I just happened to be in town in Nashville, kinda vacationing, and

I didn't have any equipment or anything. Lucinda said, 'There's gear there' ...

They just said to go in and play. I'd never heard the songs, and I didn't even

have a guitar. I tried to play something that made sense with what was being


Ramsey said the new album was worth the wait. "I know she spent a lot of time

making this new record," he said. "I really feel ... it's her best work, and I'm very

honored to be a part of supporting it."