I remember the details of my grandmother’s house (mother’s side) as if I had walked through it yesterday. Located in Sutter, at the foot of the Sutter Buttes, the house was built shortly after World War II. Grandma lived there until 1973, when a break-in spooked her (and everyone else), and she moved to Sacramento to be closer to the rest of the family.
You walked in the front door, and you immediately found yourself in what passed for the “family room.” That’s where the TV was, as well as a couch and a couple of chairs (I recall a recliner that was pretty comfortable). Just off of that room was one of the bedrooms – the one that included a swamp cooler. Like Sacramento, Sutter is very hot in the summer, but unlike Sacramento, the legendary “delta breezes” that result in so many pleasant summer evenings are almost entirely absent. In the summer of 1972, my dad, brothers and I spent a memorable evening there (“memorable” for all the wrong reasons) where the low temperature was 93 degrees (the high had been 117).
Past the family room was the dining room. You walked past a china cabinet (which was painted pink, but now resides in its restored glory at my parents’ house), and as soon as you went by, the cabinet began to shake, to the point where at any moment you expected one of the plates or cups to fall out onto the floor. There was also a bedroom attached to this room.
Next was the kitchen, not large but definitely one from which a lot of delicious food originated. My grandma was a great cook, and to this day I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted better fried chicken gravy. No one would make a claim that it was good for you, but damn it was good.
And then you walked through a small corridor, to which the bathroom was attached. The less said about the bathroom, the better. The shower was so small that you could injure your elbows just washing yourself, and the plumbing system…as I said, the less said the better.
And finally, there was a small room at the back of the house that had to be an add-on. There was a bed there, but what I remember most about this room was discovering an old stack of TIME Magazines from 1960, and spending the good portion of a day reading about the 1960 Presidential election. Very cool stuff.
The room my brothers and I slept in was the middle bedroom, and given the weather conditions you almost always had to sleep with the window open. Next to that side of the house was an unpaved road, and most evenings there would be steady traffic – although I’m not sure where those cars were going. But crystal clear in my mind is the sound that you would hear as you lay in the bed, usually too warm to sleep but hoping that sleep would eventually come.
The sound of car wheels on a gravel road.
The first time I heard the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” [video here], I got goose bumps, because it so perfectly evoked a time and a place – with every little detail just right. It is a perfect song, the title song of what is pretty damn close to being a perfect album.
The recording history of the album is legendary – reportedly, it took six years to make, with Williams twice recording the songs from scratch. Attached to the album are well-known names like Roy Bittan (among those receiving a producer credit) and Rick Rubin (mixing). Sometimes that results in an inconsistent sound, but what separates this album from all of Williams’ later work is its consistency – consistency in the sound, consistency in the singing, and most of all, the remarkable consistency in the quality of the songs.
There is nothing that Williams doesn’t do well on this record – fast rockers, slow grinders, and ballads – and though I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite song, for now I’ll stick with the title track, “Can’t Let Go,” and the album’s closer, “Jackson.” But listen to it all – because it’s all brilliant.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Produced by twangtrust (Ray Kennedy and Steve Earle), Roy Bittan and Lucinda Williams
Right in Time/Car Wheels on a Gravel Road/2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten/Drunken Angel/Concrete and Barbed Wire/Lake Charles/Can’t Let Go/I Lost It/Metal Firecracker/Greenville/Still I Long For Your Kiss/Joy/Jackson