There’s a story Lucinda Williams likes to tell about Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the 1998 album on what was then Mercury Records that served as a breakthrough for the alt-country singer-songwriter. So when the subject of her reputation for being something of perfectionist in the studio comes up, she’s ready with it. “I had a chance to work with him [Rick Rubin] on the record that turned out to be Car Wheels,” she recalls over the phone from LA. “I remember, he took me aside and asked me if I’d be open to working with different musicians outside of my road band, and at the time that just terrified me. I mean the whole idea of having studio musicians coming to play on the record and Rick Rubin producing it just terrified me because I was afraid it would be too polished.”
WEST IS BEST: “This is the record I’ve always wanted to make sonically,” she says of her new Hal Wilner–produced disc.
Instead, Williams spent months and months in the studio, working and reworking each track on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road until each sounded just rough or spare or gritty enough to capture the essence of a Lucinda Williams whose legend had grown steadily over the six years since she’d last released an album. Some had even begun to call her the “female Bob Dylan.” The New York Times Sunday Magazine honored her with an extensive profile almost a full year before Car Wheels, a disc that would go through at least three producers and get the final mix treatment from Rick Rubin himself. It was eventually released to reviewers who’d been waiting years to lavish praise on the scrappy songwriter from Texas by way of Louisiana. In fact, by the time of Car Wheels’ 1998 release, Mary Chapin Carpenter had scored a Top Five country hit with the Lucinda-penned “Passionate Kisses” (from a homonymous 1988 album), and Emmylou Harris had recorded two other tracks from early Williams albums (“Sweet Old World” from a disc of the same title and “Crescent City” from the “Passionate Kisses” disc). Even Tom Petty had gotten in on the action, recording Lucinda’s hard-and-bluesy “Changed the Locks” for She’s the One. Williams may not have been making it easy for anyone, but it was a foregone conclusion that she would be crowned the Queen of Alt-Country, with Car Wheels as the proof. It’s no wonder she’d become such a perfectionist about the final product.
“I definitely have a little of obsessive compulsive disorder,” she says with a warm laugh. “I think a lot of people who do what I do have neurotic tendencies. But I think you learn to accept that at a certain point that’s okay. And I think there are positive aspects to being a perfectionist. But I’m not really a perfectionist. I mean, if I really were, I’d have to have my nails done perfectly all the time. What I have is that obsessive compulsive thing when it comes to my music. I worry a lot. I’d get insecure and labor over things in the studio and get neurotic about all kinds of little things.”
If Williams seems to be drifting into the past tense when she mentions her insecurities, that’s certainly reflected on West (Lost Highway), the third studio album she’s released since Car Wheels came out eight years ago. Some are already calling it her best album yet, or at least her best album since . . . What’s clear from the very start is that it’s the loosest, most diverse and comfortable-sounding album since 1988’s Lucinda Williams, her first proper alt-country disc after two early recordings that stuck to a bluesy blueprint, somewhere between the studied picking of Rory Block and the gutsy slide of Bonnie Raitt. You can even hear her laughing after “Wrap My Head Around That,” a song that carries echoes of her bluesy beginnings, ends with a dissonance-laced guitar solo by Bill Frisell, and then segues into the poetic, melodic, and invitingly folksy “Words” with a random snippet of a string section. It’s as if she couldn’t believe she’s letting any of this happen on one of her recordings and can’t do anything but laugh.
West does come across as the kind of album she’s been working toward recording since she got the monkey of Car Wheels off her back, a modern classic that’s already gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Last fall, Island put out a two-CD version of the album with bonus tracks and a live disc. Essence (2001) — the quick follow-up to Car Wheels — found her letting the music do more of the talking in songs that were more spacious, less straightforwardly narrative, and more sensual in tone. It’s an approach that she didn’t quite abandon on 2003’s World Without Tears (both Lost Highway), though that disc did mark a return to wordier songs with sharper hooks and earned her a Billboard Top 20 debut for the first time.