Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
The best album of the ’90s has just been reissued with a live-in-Philly bonus disc.
By Jonathan Valania
Five years ago, this very paper PW ran the following breathless gush of superlatives from a handsome young go-getter:
Lucinda Williams is the beloved revolutionary sweetheart of the alt-country rodeo. All of us literate roots-rock boys daydream about her the same way we used to daydream about Liz Phair. We know all about her because we read The New Yorker. We know about her father’s literary standing and her mother’s madness; we know about her dead boyfriends and her Southern pedigree. We know about her open-armed embrace of all the humid folkloric strangeness the region holds: the sweaty danger of juke joints, the satanic deals at the crossroads, the Pentecostal hellfire and brimstone, and the taking up of serpents.
We know about her deep blue melancholy, the crying jags that go on for days, the tears that literally blur the lyrics she inks in her notebook into Rorschach haiku. And we love her for all this. We love the way her voice sounds like she been up all night doing God knows what; the way it tremulously hugs the vowels in the names of those Southern towns that roll off her tongue–Jackson, Greenville, Lake Charles–each one a lonely capital of magic and loss on the road map of her immaculate heart. We love her irrational perfectionism, how she recorded Car Wheels on a Gravel Road three separate times over three years until finally she made the most perfect album released in the ’90s.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Who was that fleet-fingered scribe? Why me, of course, back when was I still young and had a chance. I bring this up for two reasons, first to correct a little PW history. I believe it was Joey Sweeney who opined in these very pages that Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville was the best album of the ’90s. Sorry Charlie, turns out Guyville is actually the SECOND best. Secondly, befitting its landmark recording status, Car Wheels has just been re-mastered and reissued in a Deluxe Edition along with bonus tracks.
This edition also includes a second disc which captures Lu and the boys performing at the WXPN Singer-Songwriter Weekend on July 11th 1998. As live recordings go, this is pretty top shelf. The guitars slash and twang with Zen-like clarity and Lu sings like the proverbial angel with a dirty face. But what’s really notable is all the 215 shoutouts: “Thanks Philadelphia,” “Thanks, WXPN” and “Thanks Michaela.” And Miss Thing herself gets her golden pipes on there at the very end, saying “There’s no one quite like Lu…” over the crowd’s ovation after the final encore. It’s a very cool thing that Philadelphia is now inextricably linked to one of the 10 best albums of the 20th Century. And we owe it all to the vision, talent, imagination and grassroots stick-to-itiveness of the The Little Community Station That Could.
Now, setting aside for a moment the swelling ranks of Sketchers-clad True Believers, most people I know have a love-hate relationship with WXPN. Sure they always listen, but, you know: Too much hairy-legged lesbian folk, too much precious-but-dull singer-songwriter fare, too much…well insert your personal gripe here, and then zip it. Because THOSE DAYS ARE OVER. In recent years, WXPN has been broadcasting at a level of quality, diversity and listenability second only to, say, KCRW in Santa Monica. It’s time to shitcan the jaded hipster sniping and give it up: We now have, in the heart of our beloved city, a real-deal alternative community station run by the people and for the people. So the next time you go to reach for your sarcasm why don’t you reach for your wallet instead — and give to ’til it hurts. It’s the least you could do.