When Lucinda Williams was at the far end of what men consider young—27, to be precise—she recorded an album called Happy Woman Blues. It was her sophomore effort, and perhaps it was sophomoric—wise in a foolish sort of way—to think she could lean in the doorway and laugh in the face of the rule that all country singers must suffer from their genius. Happy. Woman. Blues. Each word in the title repels the others: Can you be happy and sing the blues? Can you be a woman and sing the blues? Can you be happy and a woman?
Though Lucinda Williams now doesn’t think of it as a “proper album,” Happy Woman Blues was well received by critics, who referred to several songs as classics. But in describing her voice and songwriting as “guileless” (Robert Christgau at the Village Voice) and “uncynical” (Ira Robbins at Trouser Press), I wonder whether critics were responding more to the white-frocked figure on the album cover than the material itself. Even when her voice performs something of the ingénue—skipping rope over sprightly fiddles—the lyrics drive home a hard emotional counterpoint. “I Lost It” alludes to disillusion so pervasive it can’t be named:
I think I lost it
Let me know if you come across it
Let me know if you find it
Down another back road somewhere
Once, a creative writing teacher told me: your tone is not equal to the anxiety it describes. Must be that Leo rising. I’ve never been quite sure whether this was a failure of my writing or his reading, whether Lucinda Williams’ early music really is uncynical or whether her audience refused to hear a cynicism they couldn’t bear coming from her body. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a bestselling album, and Lucinda Williams wouldn’t hit on one for another eighteen years. Meanwhile, she lived.
That long-in-coming bestseller—Car Wheels On a Gravel Road—came out in 1998, the same year as Rufus Wainwright’s debut, Outkast’s Aquemini, and, most importantly, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (to name my personal favorites).This year, they all turn twenty. In journalism, we call this the hook—the device I can use to persuade editors of this essay’s relevance, despite the fact that the album I keep on repeat is old by industry standards. Anniversaries and deaths are brief reprieves from the industry’s tyranny of the present, a variant of our culture’s broader tyranny of youth.
Car Wheels registers the toll that time has taken on the voice of Lucinda Williams since her twenties. Gone is the buoyant vibrato that kept Happy Woman Blues afloat in the sea of lost love. This album is less Dolly Parton or even Emmylou Harris than Bob Dylan or Chrissy Hynde. In a 1998 review at BOMB, Gary Fiskeltjon suggested that “The album’s title, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, could be said to define her voice: always threatening to miss the note, raspy or whining, dripping wet or plaintive.”
This seems right to me, and at the same time I notice how Fiskeltjon steers clear of directly calling her voice “gravelly,” a descriptor generally reserved for distinguished male singers. When women’s voices change tone—I’m thinking here of Joni Mitchell or Etta James—public response tends more towards thinly disguised moralizing about the temptations of “life on the road” and muffled remorse over the despoilment of a natural treasure. On Car Wheels Lucinda Williams is 45: old only by the double standard to which women, and women stars especially, are subject. And yet her voice does sound gravelly, perhaps precisely because it expresses the wear and tear of this dissonantly gendered timeline.
I first started listening to Car Wheels when I was 27—her age as of Happy Woman Blues—after my partner of six years broke up with me in couples’ therapy. I was living alone for the first time in my life, in a New York studio apartment uncomfortably close to the campus of Columbia University, where I was beginning a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature. Saying so made me weary, mostly because it seemed to make others weary. But how old will you be when you’re done?! Despite my obvious vitality, the subtext was that by then I’d be too old, and too poor, to have children. So what, I thought. Lucinda Williams doesn’t have any and maybe I won’t either. I was single. I was spending more than half my stipend on rent. But most importantly I was done with hope’s speculative aspect, which seemed to reinforce a neoliberal progress narrative that would always find me lacking. I needed someone to meet me where I was at:
I stand over the stove in the kitchen
Watch the water boil and I listen
Turn off the television
Ohhhhh, my baby
Her present-tense, matter-of-fact inventory of her body’s most mundane movements in the limited range of her apartment reminded me of the self-help book I had turned to in desperation: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by the very popular Buddhist nun Pema Chodrön. The title bothered me—hadn’t she ever heard of Chinua Achebe, and couldn’t she give him some space?—but otherwise I was startled by the lack of sentimental, utopic flourishes in her, ahem, dharma. There was no golden light or benevolent universal energy waiting to float me away from myself. She made mindfulness seem punk. Here she is on hopelessness: “Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security. Begin with hopelessness.” I was too skittish from a childhood in proximity to guru-centered cults to meditate or breathe, but I could get stoned and read Pema Chodrön in bed. I was too alert to patriarchy’s buzzwords to be told to calm down but when Lucinda groaned or sighed, I could too. And I could name my actions so that the simple rhythm of them almost became a ceremony, at once tightening and easing my tether to the world:
I take off my watch and my earrings
My bracelets and everything
Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling
Ohhhh, my baby
Car Wheels often ventures beyond gentle, neutral attention to the bare facts of daily life and into philosophical territory I would have described as cynical if I hadn’t been so high on Zen. In “2 Cool 2 Be 4-Gotten” she sets stark terms:
You can’t depend on anything really
There’s no promises, there’s no point
There’s no good, there’s no bad
In this dirty little joint
But even those words go down smooth after the drums drop in and roll out an easy road for us to ride. Instant relief. Her voice is sinuous and wise-cracking around the beat, as if, even as she weaves, inebriated, or exhales, crushed and cried out, there is a rock bottom that she trusts. Let’s call this the will to live: Car Wheels is depressive, but it’s not suicidal. The closing couplet in “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a perfect lyric cipher for the whole album, almost a Buson haiku—lush, place-bound, in love with the world in every weather:
Junebug versus hurricane
Junebug versus hurricane.
At 27 I didn’t want to imagine 45 as an age when I’d be better, because what if I never would be? I wanted to imagine it as an age when I didn’t have to be better to be alright.
Many interviews and profiles from the Car Wheels period imply that she was not alright, despite her artistic sucess: “Lucinda Williams Is In Pain” (The New York Times); “A Singer’s Love Affair With Loss” (The New Yorker). She was notoriously perfectionistic about getting the vibe right on this album, cycling through three producers, and sometimes I feel the media was a little drunk on the novelty of the trope: woman singer as tortured, tyrannical bandleader. But it’s not her authority that bothers me, or her aesthetic rigor, both of which seem overblown but earned if true. What fucks with me is an anecdote from a New York Times article that finds her slumped morosely on a couch til she hears her new guitarist try “some insistent, syncopated strumming” on “Lake Charles” so that it takes on the feel “of an Otis Redding tune.” Suddenly she perks up: “Well,” she says, “I’ve always been a black man in a white girl’s body. How about trying slide guitar?”
The metaphor, if that’s what to call it, almost works like another take on the terror of Get Out—blackness figured as immortal expressive possibility, with her white body conveniently figured as the prison. If Lucinda Williams didn’t sound so flippant, if that feeling weren’t such a violent cliché, it would almost be poignant the way she understands her true self as her opposite in every category: (black) white (man) girl. The slippage from man to girl is weird, especially because her body is not a girl’s anymore. It’s as if everything feels wrong to her—perhaps time most of all—til the slide guitar kicks in and sorts it out.
Lucinda doesn’t want to be a white girl because she’s not a happy woman, and she’s still haunted by the vague expectation that one should imply the other. What she wants is the blues, and she’s not sure she’s allowed to have them. Like most of America, she’s accustomed to using black sound, abstracted from black people, to lubricate this anxiety. As an album, Car Wheels attempts to work through it without directly addressing the part played by her own race. So the anxiety doesn’t get worked through, really. I don’t want her to want her whiteness, but I want her to see that it’s more than skin-deep.
In Freud’s most famous statement on psychoanalysis—“Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through”—he insists that we repeat what is too painful to remember. If our fathers abandoned us, we seek out fresh abandonments. Though the early abandonments might be “forgotten and repressed,” Freud recognizes repetition as a kind of strategy: “in the end we understand that this is [our] way of remembering.” That essay—and all of psychoanalysis, to be frank—blatantly lacks a theory of “working through” that might lead us from unconscious repeating to conscious remembering, and perhaps, from there, to a kind of freedom. How can repetition be a “way”—if not out, then through or in—if it seems to involve staying in the same place?
On Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams repeats a song she debuted on Happy Woman Blues, but with a difference. The 1998 version of “I Lost It” is both angrier and more joyful than the original. The acoustic guitar is gone, the slow crash of a rhythm section swoops in, and her voice is an open wail. The original plays the coy, casual politeness of the lyric—I think I lost it, let me know if you come across it—against the mystery of the it. But the version on Car Wheels triggers the possibility latent in the idiom: maybe she just lost it. Like, completely. Would this be so bad?
I saw Lucinda sing it live, once, at a free concert in New Haven during a storm. She was electric, somehow exploding past fandom’s impossible demand to both surprise and stay the same. Whatever Lucinda lost has obviously not been found in the intervening decades. In fact, it has spiraled out to accommodate more losses, perhaps including her own mind, her own self. Why, then, do these sound like a happy woman’s blues? Maybe because the happy woman is finally getting lost, leaving her alone to listen for who she actually is: old, white, and full of untimely feeling.
I don’t want to put too much pressure on Lucinda Williams to make my unhappiness feel happier. So sometimes I give it a rest and turn to the Kenneth Koch poem “Paradiso,” which ends like this:
How could you have thought there was one person who could make you
Happy and that happiness was not the uneven
Phenomenon you have known it to be? Why do you keep believing in this
Reality so dependent on the time allowed it
That it has less to do with your exile from the age you are
Than from everything else life promised that you could do?
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Carina del Valle Schorske, Essay