It took six years for the next album to arrive. The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth article about Williams's legendary perfectionism and her struggle to finish the record. But when Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out, it all made sense; it's an astounding work that won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The title song is a remarkable collection of rural visual images — old cars, screen doors, a child who's just finished crying — set to a funky, timeless groove. She also sings about graffiti on barroom walls ("2 Kool 2 Be 4-Forgotten"), and the record's one-chord rant, "Joy," has just been covered by Detroit R&B artist Bettye LaVette.
In concert, Williams is an arresting performer. I last saw her at the Michigan Theater, just a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Her wounded audience looked to her for something that she delivered, sadly but powerfully. She didn't rant or rail; she just acknowledged the shared devastation and poured out song after song.