Lucinda Williams is a songwriting super-shero.
Yes, most successful women who have to deal with a male-dominated industry often are.
But, she was one of the first women, no – songwriters, to raise Folk and Americana music to a “maybe Nashville needs to grab a little piece of this” status.
She writes songs that don’t conform to an industry. She’s also managed to forge a stronghold for songs with meaning and insight, rich in poetic device, painfully accessible, and stark in their emotional depth – all without compromise.
Maybe her presence among one of America’s most accessible poets for so many years is the reason, but regardless, we’re all much better off for it.
One of her best, that I keep going back to, is “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” (1998). It’s one of those timeless songs that has detail but doesn’t use it as “furniture.” Instead, it utilizes imagery to echo and reinforce the core message.
“Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” is a tempo-driven, melodic poem. She inspires me every day to write lyrics that mean something powerful to me, and hopefully you as well.
So let’s take a closer look at a song that uses an idea as a metaphor and imagery to set the scene for the idea.
Lucinda Williams “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road“
Album: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Released: June 1998
V | V | CH 5X!
What Makes It Work?
The song is rich with imagery that is very specific to the main character/speaker’s car ride(s).
Williams uses the dense imagery to reinforce her song idea, and therefore, the metaphor being created. And, if you don’t ever get to the metaphor as a listener, you still have an experience. In other words, the song works fine if you never listen past the lyric in front of you.
So how does she manage to put a simple song about a car ride in front of the listener, but add the depth of the metaphor without losing anyone?[ Get Details: Lyrical Devices ]
Talk about a universal scene! Who hasn’t ridden in a car as a child?
What I like in her non-traditional song narrative is that she doesn’t leap into “scenes” that manufacture moments and situations.
Riding in a car and the motion forward is the metaphor for the character’s experience. To emulate this, she uses progressive scenes that evolve the speaker’s experience over time. Each becomes a learning lesson on top of the last.
Even the chorus melodically mimics the motion and isolation of a solitary back seat car ride. Talk about form follows function done well!
But why use a character and nothing more than a car ride to draw in a listener?[ Get Details: Scene & Song Structure ]
One of the unique things about this song is the number of times the hook is used – eighteen to be exact.
Not only is it the refrain, but it’s also the chorus.
You might think it would sound redundant, repeat ideas, or stray from the song idea. But, it actually uses the heavy repetition structurally to it’s advantage.
How does she use repetition to create an emotionally evolutionary song?[ Get Details: Scene & Song Structure ]
The song structure she’s chosen forces Williams into a pattern that insists she keep getting back to the “long O” sound in each verse.
How does she do it and still make sure the rhyme pattern has variety?
Alternating rhymes and repeating end-rhyme words. Yep – big rule breaker!
So how does she break the rules well?[ Get Details: Rhyme Pattern ]
Because her hook is so repetitive, and the chorus is literally the same as the last line of each verse, she has to create contrast through the melody.
And, she’s got the whole “car in motion” undertone that’s being created musically. While this may not have been done intentionally, songs have a way of finding their way.
Knowing when these kinds of things are starting to happen in your song, and how to bring them out in a more pronounced way is part of your song craft.
So how does she create contrast melodically and through the accompaniment?[ Get Details: Contrast, Contrast, Melody & Accompaniment ]
See how this song compares to others in terms of word count, reading level, and song lyric stats.[ Lyrics & Song Stats ]
So how can you utilize all of the above in your own songs?
Go to the full song deep dive and get tips on applying to your own songwriting every time you sit down.