Back in 1998 Lucinda Williams released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album so rich and raw and real it jarred me, in a very good way. At the time I lived in Memphis, TN, not far from many of the places where Lucinda sets her songs. Her country-fried, bluesy, rock with heavy guitar licks and her tender growl came to me at the perfect time.
I was beginning life all over again. I spent 17 years foolishly trying to de-gay myself through ex-gay ministries, and I had just completed two years in the notorious Love in Action program, a Christian residential rehab designed to make gay men straight for Jesus and the homophobic church. In December 1998 I finally came to my senses and begin to tentatively come out of the closet.
A Born-Again Bubble
In addition to needing a new wardrobe and new friends (all the church ones dumped me and the ex-gay ones were forbidden to associate with a “practicing homosexual,”) I DESPERATELY needed new music. From about 1984 I stopped listening to any music that did not glorify God, even if most of the Contemporary Christian Music I consumed was so lousy music it most certainly God repent of creating music in the first place. I lived in a born-again Christian cultural bubble and had not seriously listen to secular music since Billy Joel’s 1983 Innocent Man album (which was far from his best.)
In my new life everything felt unformed, which both was scary and exhilarating. I had a whole city to explore–Memphis–which I had already lived in for two years but was forbidden to go to most parts because it was too gay. I traded in my old car for a brand new 1998 VW Beetle with a sunroof and began to live a new life.
New Music for a New Life
There was lots of press around Lucinda William’s new album. I read about it in Oxford American Magazine, and how Lucinda wrote like a poet, influenced by her poet father, and knew how to write and sing about loss and pain and everyday life. That same day I ran out to the big music store on Poplar and Highland (in what had been known as “The Forbidden Zone”) and bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Then for the next six months I played it on a constant loop in my car as I began a new life. The words of the songs are amazing because they sound so simple, something one person says to another. They sound authentic that way. They sound both familiar and nostalgic.
After nearly two decades of living in the a dark, cramped, dusty closet allowing myself to be micromanaged by church leaders, the title song became my theme song as I sped around Memphis.
Can’t find a damn thing in this place
Nothing’s where i left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
You better do what you’re told
When i get back this room better be picked-up
Car wheels on a gravel road
Yeah, I’m outta here! And after living for two years at the end of a dirt track in a house stuffed with oppressed homosexuals repressing everything in our lives, I imagined I was tearing out of that awful time in my life to a new place of sanity and freedom.
But it was the music–the power of it and the meat of it that I needed back then. Even now I hear one of the tracks–Metal Firecracker, I Lost it, or Concrete and Barbed Wire, and I am immediately back in that VW Beetle in the Memphis heat with the AC on high heading to meet new friends at In the Grove or Integrity, still just coming out of the shadows of fear and doubt and shame.
Yesterday I received in the mail the LP (yes, the vinyl LP) of Lucinda William’s latest album, The Ghosts of Highway 20. I have loved all of Lucinda’s albums, some more than others of course, but this new one feels like the first one, but richer–so lush and so tender and so fierce. It tells the story of a strong women who bears scars from the past, still feels the pain, but is still moving forward. Immediately as the first song played I was back in the VW Beetle, but older and wiser and more sure of myself.
In an age of Spotify and digital songs stuck in my head as I make dinner or walk to the store, I am happy to have my hands on this album so I can sit and play it in my room, listen attentively to it, and praise the Lord and Lucinda and the many friends that have helped me embrace a new life.
I went thru hell when i was younger
Deep in the well you’ll see the hunger
To find the strength i got within me
To wrestle with the ghosts of highway 20