A master songwriter who knows when to get specific with her lyrics and when to stay opaque, Lucinda Williams filled in many of the blanks in her best-loved album Saturday night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Fortunately, knowing more about the songs did nothing to lessen their impact.
Taking her Grammy-winning LP “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” back out for a spin in honor of its 20th anniversary, the Southern-stewed alt-twanger/folk-rocker offered her long-appreciative Twin Cities fans a trip down memory lane — quite literally a geographical journey, with Williams’ own memories as signposts.
From the little girl in the back seat with dirt in her tears near the start of record, to the woman in the driver seat headed to Jackson to forget a lost love at album’s end, the “Car Wheels” songs rolled out on stage like a musical travelogue blended with a romantic diary and family photo album.
Between the album’s bookends, Williams — whose nine-year marriage with Minnesotan music exec Tom Overby has deepened her ties to the Twin Cities — rattled off Southern city names as if they were characters in her own personal Tennessee Williams saga.
Some of the towns had songs overtly named after them: “Lake Charles,” “Jackson” and “Greenville,” the latter a dour but soulful acoustic dirge that became her crowning vocal moment of the night. Others popped up in the lyrics like postcards, such as Slidell and West Memphis, the cities where she went searching for peace and serenity in “Joy.” Yeah, as if.
Through her conversations with the sold-out crowd at the Fitz — where she returns Sunday — Williams even added more town names to the journey. She revealed that “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten” was based on graffiti she saw during a debaucherous New Year’s Eve trip to Knoxville, including a sprayed-on version of the song’s refrain “Junebug vs. Hurricane.”
“I had no idea what it means, it just sounded cool,” she conceded.
And then came the actual human characters in the songs. Williams opened up about their real-life inspirations. Like the former boyfriend from a rich Southern family who “ran in the opposite direction” (in “Lake Charles”). And the one-time bassist in her band who sparked up a fling with her on tour, only to kick her to the curb afterward because she “didn’t fit his agenda” (“Metal Firecracker”).
“I gotta couple good songs out of him anyway,” she deadpanned, also crediting him for “Still I Long for Your Kiss.”
Williams also gave a eulogy of sorts for the late Texas songwriter Blaze Foley, whose legend she helped build with one of the best-loved “Car Wheels” tracks, “Drunken Angel” — to the point where Ethan Hawke produced and directed a movie about him last year (“Blaze”).
“Blaze was destined for better things, but he liked to drink a lot, and he liked to hang out with Townes Van Zandt a lot,” she explained, as if each was an equally damning trait.
“[The song] could be about any of the great artists we lost too soon.”
Hearing Williams sing about Foley’s personal stumbles and artistic triumphs — “Blood spilled out of the hole of your heart, over the strings of your guitar” — underlined how much Williams’ own conquest with “Car Wheels” deserved to be celebrated.
Not only did she set her own heresy and heartache to tape in ways that still make the rest of swoon, she has moved on to a long and fruitful career since then. Most of the seven songs tacked onto the end of Saturday’s concert came from later records, including “Steal Your Love” and “Get Right With God” (both recorded in Minneapolis for 2001’s “Essence” album).
Those “Car Wheels” songs are far enough in Williams’ rearview mirror for her talk frankly about them 20 years later. The stories and shared wisdom in Saturday’s show made it far more compelling than other “in its entirety” album concerts. The performance was hardly just a musical retread, too.
Her current band, the Buick 6 — the longest-running backing unit of her career — added some interesting but never heavy-handed twists. “Concrete and Barbed Wire” had a bluesier grit to it, and guitarist Stuart Mathis added some sweet Buck Owens-twangy flourishes in “Lake Charles.”
Williams sometimes sang the tunes in a deeper register and slower drawl, giving them a coolly muddier vibe. Her oft-lurking nerves got to her in the title track, which she asked the band to restart. But she shook off the bad moment and rolled on full-steam-ahead, in keeping with the timeless theme of the ageless album in question.