Not unlike “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, one of the best parts of this experience is really digging into an album I either haven’t heard of at all, or minimally know at best. Today is no different as I listened to “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” by Louisiana native Lucinda Williams. Some may look at this as country music, but it has so many other flavors, including blues, rock and Cajun spice. To my uneducated ears, her voice comes across as a redneck blend of Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega and Bonnie Raitt. To be clear, that is meant with high praise. What I love about her most, and especially this album, is her ongoing love affair with Louisiana. And as much as we have celebrated New Orleans in this blog, her background and this album is much more focused on country, rural Louisiana. Far from New Orleans, Williams is a native of Lake Charles, clear on the southwest side of the state, and deep in the bayou. As I have mentioned before, my family lived in Louisiana for ten years after I started college, and although it never was the place where I wanted to plant permanent roots, I have so many positive memories as a young and naïve adult, driving the country roads from town to town. Whether it was a road trip with Jim or John & Pete, hanging out with Mike and Shane when they visited, time spent searching for the mouth of the Mississippi River with my Dad, casino runs to Gulfport or Biloxi with my Mom, watching my younger sister grow up, or just idle time on a hot summer day or even hotter summer night, I loved the unique and one of a kind culture I never could have imagined in Colorado. This southern gem captures a lot of that spirit, and it is rated as #98 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
This album is a really enjoyable listen, and I truly loved it front to back, but like always there are tracks that stand out. The title track is the closest to straight country, but a fond reminder of the days of traversing dirt roads. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a perfect tribute to the roadside dive bars I was so fascinated by, and the first of many songs to pay homage to Louisiana and the south. “Concrete And Barbed Wire” is more blues-country, on the softer acoustic side. As you can imagine, “Lake Charles” is another proud Louisiana moment, with so many geographical references to places I remember well. “Can’t Let Go” is an edgier blues rocker, and like many songs on this album, the guitar work is stellar. Williams handles a lot of the guitar on this album herself, and is joined by legends like Steve Earle and Charlie Sexton, and we even see Emmylou Harris join the fun on harmony vocals. This is a top-notch ensemble of musicians on record here.
One of the very best songs is “I Think I Lost It”. What a beautiful chorus with stunning harmonies; this is a really outstanding composition with equal-caliber performances, and the accordion just sinks us deeper into the bayou. “Jackson” crosses the border into Mississippi, but this southern love affair has no borders.
For all of those great songs, there is one that stands way above the crowd for me, for two reasons. First, the song “Joy” is filthy southern country rock, and the riff is almost exactly what it would sound like if Lynyrd Skynyrd played “When The Levee Breaks”. As great as that sound is, complete with some very Page-esque slide guitar, I stopped in my tracks today when I heard this verse:
“I’m gonna go to Slidell and look for my joy, Maybe in Slidell I’ll find my joy.”
Slidell? Seriously? I have heard hundreds of songs about The Pelican State, but never until today have I heard a song that calls out Slidell, the relatively subdued New Orleans suburb across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans that my family called home. This one is a keeper for sure, just like the rest of this great record. And who knows, maybe someday someone else will look for and find their joy in Slidell. In Louisiana, anything is possible…