Lucinda Williams performs Saturday at Oakland's Fox Theater as part of a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the masterpiece that helped crystalize the inchoate Americana music movement. The fact that the epochal album was actually released 21 years ago, on June 30, 1998, makes the tour with her well-oiled band Buick 6 even more apropos.
A legendary endeavor long before it saw the light of day, Car Wheels was the fruit of an extended, well-chronicled labor, a painstaking birth that unmade friendships while sowing the seeds of future collaborations. Williams had released her critically hailed fourth album Sweet Old World (Chameleon) in 1992, and by 1997 stories started circulating about her eagerly awaited follow up's protracted recording process, which started in Austin, came together in Nashville, and concluded in Los Angeles.
"That was when I made the big mistake of letting The New York Times into the control room," Williams said in a recent phone call from her house in Nashville. "The writer hung out for three days and a big piece on recording Car Wheels came out saying that I was hard to work with, that I'm a perfectionist. People just got the wrong impression. I'll never live that down. A lot of bands re-record stuff."
The Times story by Darcy Frey, which described Williams toiling away in Canoga Park's Rumbo Studio agonizing over every detail with producer and E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan, came out nearly a year before Car Wheels hit the streets, stoking anticipation for the album's eventual release. Seemingly oblivious to the dynamic of Williams being the only woman in the room, Frey described a scene where "Bittan, against his better judgment, is getting drawn into the vortex of Williams's nutty perfectionism."
Bruce Springsteen, Bittan's best known employer, is also known to take years between albums and for his exacting pursuit of the sound he wants. Somehow I doubt that he's ever been described as a nutty perfectionist. Anyway, Williams had the last laugh. Her dogged combination of sonic experimentation and granular track-building resulted in a recording that sounds more urgent than ever with classic songs like "Drunken Angel," "Lake Charles," "Joy," and the title track, which boasts one of the most memorable guitar riffs in recorded music.
The album is all over the map stylistically, but Williams' voice anchors the project. Not her wondrously slurry vocals, but her voice as a writer, as a woman aching to be touched, haunted by lost friends and lovers, ready to rumble romantically while desperately seeking a town to call home. Car Wheels made such an impact that Mercury Records launched Lost Highway, a label that defined the emerging alt-country and Americana movement with albums by Tift Merritt, Shelby Lynne, Robert Earl Keen, the Jayhawks, the patron saint of songwriters Willie Nelson, and the hit soundtrack to O Brother When Art Thou?
While the story told about Car Wheels usually focuses on the acrimonious recording process and the creative break between Williams and her guitarist/co-producer Gurf Morlix ("Twenty years later and he still won't talk to me," she said), the tale is as much one of American capitalism as Americana music. Throughout the 1990s Williams career was buffeted by music label consolidation and record executive politics, particularly the collapse of Sweet Old World label Chameleon. After Car Wheels, she found a home on Lost Highway, which released her next six albums (until lapsing into inactivity about five years ago).
For the Car Wheels tour, the three-time Grammy Award winner is performing the album in its entirety in sequence, "though we talked about maybe moving the order around," Williams said. "You'd think 'Joy' would come last. It's the big song, and on live shows we'd do that as the closer. But we decided to keep it the same. I like doing 'Joy' and 'Jackson' after that."
While the New York Times story describes Williams dismissing string wizard Greg Leisz from the studio because his guitar work isn't gritty enough, he ended up contributing to several tracks on Car Wheels (on 12 string electric guitar and mandolin). It was the start of a friendship that blossomed into a gloriously genre-defying collaboration with tenor sax great Charles Lloyd and the Marvels, a project documented on last year's Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)
A member of Lloyd's group with guitar star Bill Frisell and the superlative rhythm section tandem of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers, Leisz invited Williams to a Lobero Theater concert in Santa Barbara, not far from the saxophonist's house. Hanging out backstage, Lloyd and Williams hit it off. One thing led to another and he ended up sitting in with her band when she played UCLA's Royce Hall a few days later "and that ended up being amazing," she said. "I thought I'd gone to heaven or something hearing him play on my songs. We realized we had all this stuff in common."
She spent much of the year touring with Lloyd and the Marvels, including a stellar concert at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium. A native of Memphis who grew up hearing country music and played with seminal blues masters like Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King as a teenager, Lloyd became a crossover star in the late 1960s while sharing Fillmore Auditorium bills with acts like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. It wasn't hard for Williams and Lloyd to find common ground.
"One song was Dylan's 'Masters of War,'" she said. "I've been doing that since I was 16 and it was already in his repertoire. How cool is that? Here's this jazz guy and he's all over the place. It doesn't matter if it's a jazz song or not. He loves to interpret different styles of music. We did 'Joy' and the songs take on a whole new level."
While she's basking in the glow of the Car Wheels anniversary, Williams has been busy working on her next project. She's almost finished a new album she's recording at the Nashville studio of Ray Kennedy, who engineer Car Wheels, "so we've gone full circle," she said.
"I have all these new songs and Ray invited us to come in and cut some stuff. He has all this vintage equipment and the sounds that Ray was getting was blowing everybody's mind. The songs have a lot to do with what's going on right now, passionate, angry but loving. There's one song called 'Man Without A Soul' and another one 'Bone of Contention.' Everything had this really cool, raw garage-rock grungy sound, like how people are feeling."
Whether Williams is revealing her inner conflicts or diagnosing our national disorders, it's a safe bet that she won't release the new album until it sounds exactly like she wants.
Nov. 2, 8 p.m., $45-$95, Fox Oakland, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 800-745-3000, TheFoxOakland.com