"Joy," Lucinda Williams
In my umpty-something years as an amateur songwriter, I can only think of one song that I ever wrote entirely while driving. I once subscribed to a small email group that sent out a songwriting prompt every Sunday morning, and we readers would have to cough up a demo recording by Friday evening. Penalties for missing the deadline were stiff, so one week, with my only available writing time lost to a two-hour drive across Massachusetts, I was forced to come up with something behind the wheel. I squeaked out three not especially clever verses about how I had to write this stupid song on the road because I ran out of time again (rule #1: write what you know), and then banged out an mp3 in one take when I got home. Yes, it was terrible.
Despite my efforts to forget the whole incident, though, I’m fascinated by the process I went through to get there, and how that process changed because there was no guitar in my hands. Writing on the highway filed down all of the jagged edges and protuberances, all of the ninths and major sevenths and I-don’t-know-what chords that I throw in to make it “interesting”. The only accompaniment I had was whatever my hindbrain could conjure without too much effort, so I stuck with the basics: low-key 12-bar blues with a standard I-IV-V chord progression and a vocal melody that colored well within the lines. It’s the only song I ever recorded on ukulele, because anything else would have been above the song’s pay grade—a meatball arrangement for a meatball tune. But because I was working with a proven structure and couldn’t get in my own way, even though it was bad, it wasn’t that bad. I was blessed with the freedom of constraint, of being in the moment, of giving myself permission not to make the earth tremble with my creation. Even if you didn’t know I’d written it from the driver’s seat, you could probably guess just listening to it.
But if there’s any weird aspect to this story, it’s that I was driving through New England when it happened. The Northeast is carpeted with forests and water and hills and scenery like whoa, laced with highways that wrestle against the tyranny of straight lines like a five-year-old refusing to put on a winter coat. There’s so much to keep one’s hindbrain busy that it has no bandwidth for anything else; you need stimuli for ideas, but at some point the stimuli need to shut the eff up so you can actually do the work, and shutting up isn’t Massachusetts’s thing. No, it should have happened in the Midwest, where the view never changes and the mind is forced to create in defense of one’s own sanity. In college I made the Chicago-to-Champaign trip dozens of times, and it was only once the good radio stations has faded somewhere behind me that I could begin to think again. As Janis Ian once pointed out, religions are born in the desert for a reason.
Critics’ darling/force of nature Lucinda Williams is as dedicated a gas-pedal songwriter as you’ll ever find, and “Joy,” from her dear-gods-go-buy-this-album-immediately Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, might be the greatest testament to the 65 mph muse ever set to tape. It was written somewhere along westbound I-40 on the way to her parents’ house in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but even without that backstory and the “pack my things and go” storyline there’d be little doubt that a car was involved. Like all songs penned from the driver’s seat it’s stripped right down to the chassis: one—count ‘em, one—chord from beginning to end, a two-note melody with the occasional pop fly ringer, a tight seven lines of lyrics stretched to a repetitive thirty-two, all wrapped up in a steel-toed rhythm line that doesn’t apologize for leaning on the downbeat. This is the song you sing when the stereo’s been busted for the last hundred miles, set to the beat you pound out on the dashboard with the hand that’s not steering.
I mention I-40 West specifically because if the electric guitar punch is the song’s skeleton, the highway, that highway, is its bloodstream. Yes, the twang is part of it, as are the exit sign name drops of West Memphis and Slidell, but it’s more than just that. Traveling toward the Mississippi River is a journey of diminishing returns; Eastern Tennessee has the majesty of the Smoky Mountains, but as you head past Nashville and the rise and fall have faded, aside from the river, the Memphis fringe, and the Six Flags Over Jesus spectacle of the Bellevue Baptist Church, all of the interesting things to look at are behind you. It’s a traveler’s blank canvas, and that’s where “Joy” was painted. Close your eyes: this is the sound of someone trying to fill the space in their heart when the highway won’t, the sound of sweat and sleep debt and too much coffee and not enough bathroom breaks. The rhythm is a driver’s rhythm, but not the tense pounding of the East or the swoony pulse of the West or the indifferent hum of the North. It’s a rib cage rhythm, hunkered down, big and alive but well aware that it has a long way to go. The guitar growl is the rumble of asphalt under the tires, transferred to the body from the car floor through both feet planted there since the cruise control was locked on back in Jackson. And those lyrics, especially the cornerstone “You took my joy, I want it back,” are words you shout at the windshield, succinct and to the point in a way that comes from having too much time to think about it.
It’s all so simple, as it has to be without an instrument or microphone or pen and paper, but it paints a picture as big as Arkansas itself. Kind of like leaving the one who took your joy: your life may be complicated, but when you come down it in the end, you just take your keys, fill the tank, and drive.
Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road