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She’s in the middle of a glorious bunch of players on the stage of the Birchmere, a portrait in reverie as she plays the hell out of her new record. But however content Lucinda Williams looks, trust that the bus is idling just outside, ready to pull out on a moment’s notice. Williams is good at a lot of things, but staying put ain’t one of them.
The tour behind her took-forever Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is just one more stretch of Williams’ endless road trip through life. By the time she kicks into her fourth song, it’s clear that she never met a townor a man, for that matterthat didn’t look a whole lot better in the rearview mirror.
With its Greenville, Lake Charles, Jackson, and countless unnamed juke joints, the record sounds like an invocation of place, but it’s really more about placelessness. The title cut, “Car Wheels,” is about a little girl with a fixation on passing telephone poles, one who apparently comes to rest only when she is in motion. Four decades later, Williams is still in gear, looking for a safe place to pull over. Last Sunday night, the Birchmere served as a rest stopshe called it “the most comfortable place we play.”
It must feel swell to finally be on the road, touring behind a real, actual album. In the six years since she made Sweet Old World, the industry, the press, and frantic fans have been banging on her for the follow-up. Car Wheels is an old record by now, having been through three separate recordings and mixing sessions over a number of years. As Williams bounced from label to label and went through producers like so many packs of cigarettes, the industry whispered about her being hung up on the capital letter in the word “Artist.” In interviews, she pleads guilty only to searching for a perfectly imperfect reflection of the way she hears her songs. Chalk it up to fickleness, but clearly some of the delay may be the growing tyranny of the “No Depression” country ethicit takes a lot of trying to make it sound like you’re not trying, after all.
The record came out June 30, and even though it is a rough-cut gem, it will probably come up short of her expectations, just like the other four she has made. If the 45-year-old resident of Nashvillefor now, anywaywere a dark, brooding male, she would no doubt be lauded for her stubborn genius and unwillingness to settle for less. As it is, she’s just a girl who “Can’t Let Go,” as she admitted in one of the songs she dropped on the adoring upturned faces at the Birchmere.
As if to put an exclamation point on her impetuosity, the trademark bleach-blonde strode out to the mike as a shockingly brunet, country-singing archetype. It nicely accessorized her current fascination with unadorned music-making. She is a songwriter of proven economy, having not wasted a single word in all of the records she has made. (The precise gift for language is a legacyher father, Miller Williams, read his poetry at President Clinton’s second inaugural.)
She opened with Sweet Old World’s “Pineola,” in which slide king Bo Ramsey did spooky fills to nicely etch the graveside tribute. Even the casual listener would end up noticing that the men Williams takes a liking to have a tendency to expireI counted at least four dead guys in her two-hour set. It’s a testament to her wry durability that the audience laughed heartily the second time she introduced a song by saying the intended was no longer among us. “Why do people always laugh when I do one of my songs about death?” she complained through a smile.
Williams has a singular facility with kaddish. Both “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles” are edgy, funny tributes that include a little swift foot on the backside for the departed. Like her signature song, “Sweet Old World,” they suggest that the boys are idiots for checking out of the party so soon. In “Angel,” she asks, “Why’d you let go of your guitar?/Why’d you ever let it go that far? Could’ve held on to that long smooth neck/Let your hand remember every fret.” That hanging onto a guitar, even with bloodied fingers, would strike Williams as a route to salvation fits perfectly. It’s worked for her.
There were four guitarists on stage at the Birchmere, counting warm-up act Jim Lauderdale, who sang perfectly measured harmony throughout the 20-song set (and on the record). While she and Lauderdale stuck mostly to rhythm on their acoustic guitars, the electric bookends of Ramsey and Johnny Lee Schell offered separate arguments for the primacy of the guitar in every genre Williams touches. Schell, a punk-geek boy complete with odd-shaped Coke-bottle specs, came through several times with tasty 40-second revelations before stepping just as quickly back into the pocket.
The best instrument on stage was inarguably the one that lives between Williams’ heart and soul: She leaned into her new songs with nicely pitched abandon. On “Too Cool to Be Forgotten,” a tribute to Birney Imes’ photographic book Juke Joint, she chanted her way through the verses like a Southern Rickie Lee Jones, before breaking her voice to high and beautiful effect to punctuate each chorus. She reached up for the chorus of “Car Wheels” and stayed there, bolstered by Lauderdale as she belted out the lone anthem on the new record. And her straight-up country hymn “Jackson” was sung in a voice that seemed to rise up out of a valley of its own accord.
The séance broke only when she reached back to cover songs that are as close as she has ever gotten to hits. When she introduced “Passionate Kisses,” she said that Mary Chapin Carpenter sent her roses when she played the Birchmere last yeara floral acknowledgment that a song that sold 4 million for Carpenter was bought by less than 100,000 when Williams sang it. (The dreaded first-person interlude: I was in the Zona Rosa bar in Austin five years ago, home court for Williams at the time. She kicked in to the domestic paean that asks, “Shouldn’t I have all of this and passionate kisses?” I was stuck to the wall, ruminating about being a single parent with armloads of laundry and not much else. A real live Texas girl in one of those gingham swing dresses pulled me onto the dance floor, hard. Case closed. You can have it all.)
Her other high-profile outing, an ode to a stalker called “Changed the Locks,” was gender-bent a few years ago by Tom Petty to good effect. But what would be jewels in any other songwriter’s discography were rendered as so many tin cans by Williams. She seemed content to phone in her best-known songs for greedy fans before heading back into the beautifully grinding gears of Car Wheels. She may have lots of misgivings about what gets committed to record, but her commitment to the songs on the current record was implicit in every note she sang.
Like almost all of her writing, Car Wheels is about men, a species that sounds like a very tall child when Williams is doing the explaining. Yes, they’re cute and adorable, but they are usually shitloads of trouble, she seemed to be telling the crowd. By her lights, it’s less about standing by your man than picking the knucklehead up and dusting him off when he falls down, which is all the goddamn time. And when that doesn’t work, well, there’s always a proper burial. Williams has a blind spot for assholes, which probably explains the number of men in her audience. The portraits of men as not-so-beautiful losers were delivered without rancor, just gorgeous regret.
In lesser hands, all of the romantic autopsies would wear an audience down. But just when you thought Williams believes guys really are good for nothing, she delivered “Still I Long for Your Kiss” and the album’s single “Right in Time,” both coming across in all their girly, naive-again splendor. The only time she sounded at all forced was when she talked about a love imprisoned behind “Concrete and Barbed Wire.” The corn-pone weepingshe spent part of her six-year hiatus in the sway of country god/devil Steve Earleabout a feeling bigger than a building didn’t sound like anything Williams had ever lived.
Her first encore, a three-song suite of dead-on blues, was the only abject failure of the evening. Williams may have the blues big time, but when she sings them, she’s toweringly average. Bonnie Raitt, whose current work wouldn’t entitle her to carry Williams’ guitar pick, could pack more white-girl blues into a single phrase.
This clubfooted blues turn was quickly erased as she headed for the bus with manifest goodbyes. “Sweet Old World,” “Jackson,” and “Big Red Sun” showed again that when it comes to send-offs, a real Southern girl will always leave you wishing you could stay a little longer.CP