Before Lucinda Williams signed off on her 1998 Grammy-winning album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” there were just a couple of finishing touches she needed to get done. One was making an album cover.
Williams — who’ll perform “Car Wheels” in its entirety at the Beacon Theatre on Wednesday to mark its 20th anniversary — brought in Shelby Lee Adams to do the art. Williams likens the eastern Kentucky photographer’s work to that of Walker Evans, known for his pictures of the downtrodden during the Great Depression.
“It didn’t really work out, exactly,” Williams tells The Post from her home in Los Angeles. When you do a shoot for an artist’s album, she explains, you have to take the photos quickly. But Adams was using a large-format camera that needed a new plate of film loaded for each picture, and that took time.
“So the PR people from Mercury Records were there for the shoot and they were about to go crazy,” says Williams, adding, “I couldn’t find a photo from that shoot to use for the cover.”
So she tried something else. “We drove out in the country [outside Nashville] trying to find a gravel road,” she says. “That was pretty hilarious.” When that didn’t work either, she wound up using a photo by Birney Imes of a road leading up to an old juke joint.
Meanwhile, she says, “My lawyer was calling me ’cause I was taking too long to pick the cover. She goes, ‘Lucinda, we gotta get this album out. I don’t care if you put a brown paper bag over it. Make a decision.’”
The album, her fifth, was widely acclaimed, giving the roots singer even greater exposure. “I remember seeing it on best album of the year lists,” Williams says. “At one point, I was running neck-in-neck with Lauryn Hill in the [Village Voice] Pazz & Jop poll. God, I couldn’t believe it.”
Another thing the album got her was a better ride. “That’s when I finally went out on the road in a tour bus,” Williams says about putting her years of van travel to gigs behind her.
The 13 songs on “Car Wheels” are something of a travelogue through the now-65-year-old’s sometimes tumultuous youth. Her father, Miller Williams, was a poet and college professor whose changing jobs kept his family on the move. Not surprisingly, geography is ever present in her songs, which include “Lake Charles” (Williams’ Louisiana birthplace) and “Jackson” (the Mississippi city where her sister was born). Between sips of black tea, she rattles off other towns she lived in: Vicksburg, Miss., Atlanta, Macon, Ga., Baton Rouge, La., New Orleans, Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.
The album’s title track comes from “thinking about some troubled childhood things,” she says. “My mother suffered from pretty severe mental illness. It wasn’t always there, but she suffered from manic depression … There was some horrible medicine with some horrible side effects that she was supposed to take and, of course, she wouldn’t want to take it, bless her heart.”
Her mother, Lucille, suffered several nervous breakdowns, some of which required hospitalization.
“Some of the little trips with my dad was to actually get out of the house, ’cause my mother was having a bad day,” she says. “So that’s the darkness underneath the song.”
On the opening line of the album’s title cut, Williams sings about Macon, the Georgia town where she spent her early years, when a couple of “significant things” happened.
“My dad took me downtown with him one day to see this blind street singer named Blind Pearly Brown,” Williams says, her Southern accent making “Blind” sound like “Blonde.”
“He would stand on the street and sing with a can around his neck so people could put tips in. It was my first exposure to Delta blues.”
Another time, her father took her to visit his mentor, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived about an hour away.
“I vaguely remember she raised peacocks,” Williams says. “The story is that I had fun chasing peacocks while my dad was in the house talking with her.”
Miller Williams died in 2015. His daughter says that the first time he heard her sing the title track “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” — with its mention of a child in the back seat, “lookin’ out the window/little bit of dirt mixed with tears” — he told her he was sorry. She asked him why.
“Didn’t you realize,” he said, “that you’re the little girl?”
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