Lucinda Williams is as polite a person as you'll ever talk to, but in the six years since her last album she has grown tired of certain questions. "I hate pop culture. I really do," Williams says in her weary Louisiana drawl. "All I heard from reporters was ‘When's the album coming out?' Or ‘We haven't heard you on the radio yet.' What was I supposed to do? Put out an album with mediocre songs on it?"
The album she is referring to is "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," a brilliant new collection of juke-joint blues, spare folk songs and traditional country that is earning Williams unqualified critical acclaim and brings her Nov. 2 to House of Blues, with Jim Lauderdale. Equal parts William Faulkner and Loretta Lynn, the album is a travelogue of loss, hope and desire, sung in Williams' raspy twang. But the making of the album wasn't easy.
Williams entered the studio in 1995 with longtime band member and co-producer Gurf Morlix. Feeling the results lacked tension, she hooked up with singer-songwriter Steve Earle and re-recorded the entire album. Williams finally began hearing what she wanted. "Steve's guitar playing provided that edge, that undercurrent that the songs needed," says Williams.
Daughter of poet and professor Miller Williams (who read at Clinton's second inauguration), Williams' childhood was marked by constant moving and writing. By 18 she had lived in seven Southern towns and briefly resided in South America as her father took different teaching jobs. Calling her childhood "one long creative writing class," Williams sought out writing advice from such literary greats as James Dickey, Charles Bukowski and Flannery O'Connor when they visited her dad.
But Williams loved music, and began playing anywhere she could get a gig. Her lyrical skill started to take shape on 1980's "Happy Woman Blues," her first album of original material. But it wasn't until after 1988's "Lucinda Williams" and 1992's "Sweet Old World" that she received national attention. Her song "Passionate Kisses" was covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter and earned Williams a Grammy in 1994.
Like her past efforts, "Car Wheels" is too honest and edgy for Nashville, too old-time country for rock stations. "Putting labels on people is the business end of music," says Williams. "It's just so someone can know what section in the record store to put me."