The story of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is long and winding. When the disc dropped in the summer of 1998, it was a major event. Williams’ previous two records—Lucinda Williams and Sweet Old World—had made the then-45-year-old singer/songwriter a bona ?de critical darling and near-guru among the burgeoning alt.country crowd. Not only was Car Wheels her masterpiece, but it had been six years in the waiting. During that time, another alt.country darling, Uncle Tupelo, had splintered into Wilco and Son Volt, and a proli?c young North Carolina songwriter named Ryan Adams had arrived on the scene with his band Whiskeytown.
The lags between Williams’ albums were already the stuff of legend. Before Car Wheels, she’d been on two indie labels, Chameleon and Rough Trade, that folded shortly after she released albums with them. (Rough Trade has since re-opened.) Williams also is known for being a studio perfectionist; She tinkered with Car Wheels for so long—bringing in new producers and moving sessions to different cities—that music-industry pundits claimed she’d never be satis?ed. But when the album eventually came out on Mercury Records, it was worth the wait.
Nearly a decade later, Car Wheels remains the quintessential Americana album, from its painstakingly precise production and spot-on use of instrumental textures to Williams’ sweet-to-grainy vocal nuances and terri?cally detailed songwriting, in which she spins heartbreaking, unmistakably Southern tales of tortured artists, lost loves and bitter breakups. So what should we ask of a deluxe edition? How about versions of the songs in their ragged glory? There must be hundreds of outtakes from all those sessions and producers, but you’d never know it from this reissue. What we do get are two excellent previously unreleased tracks (“Down the Big Road Blues” and “Out of Touch”) and an alternate take of “Still I Long for Your Kiss” that appeared on the Horse Whisperer soundtrack. Disc 2, though, makes up for the dearth of unreleased goodies. It’s a 1998 World Café appearance that includes blistering performances of nine Car Wheels songs as well as three tunes from Sweet Old World. And, of course, it features a soul-baring performance of road-tested crowd pleaser, “Changed the Locks.”