Utah-raised singer-songwriter Jane Bruce was raised on the vivid lyrics and singular voices of artists such as Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams, who were among those in heavy rotation on her dad's stereo. And like so many great albums, dropping a needle on those records can take her back to a specific point in time.
Bruce, who released her album My Bed earlier this year, says Williams' 1998 classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road instantly takes her back to family roadtrips or morning spent in the kitchen of her childhood home.
"To this day, when I go home to visit my family, the music on the stereo depends entirely on what my dad thinks will best suit the moment. Fortunately he has a great CD collection, and is always open to suggestions--and lucky for us his inability to figure out how to stream things has resulted in deeply crystallized memories of entire albums and their journeys from beginning to end. One of the albums that so often made its way onto road trips, evening barbecues and mornings making pancakes was Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Bruce tells Wide Open Country. "I loved her raspy voice, so different from mine, and even though I didn't always understand the lyrics, I could always dance along to the grooves. But the song on the album that I always loved most was the last track, 'Jackson.' I loved singing along, trying to remember which city came next, and feeling proud that I knew where Baton Rouge was because I had cousins who lived there. (Also, a place named Baton Rouge felt very exotic growing up in a state with towns named things like 'Beaver' or 'Price.')
I recently did a deep dive on the album ahead of talking about it on a podcast, and was flooded with memories, gratitude, and a sharpened ability to see the beauty and clarity of story in the lyrics on the album. Getting to 'Jackson' is like this sweet, slightly sad bite of hope and longing that you get after a meal of so much heartbreak, longing and anger. 'Jackson' feels like Lucinda's version of a prayer, willing herself to be okay, just as soon as she gets to that next city. I feel so much more aware of that kind of deep seated longing for contentment now than I did when I was singing along in the fifth grade, and today each time I sing with Lucinda, I can't help but get a little misty-eyed."
Bruce says her passion for songwriting began after a performance of Williams' "Jackson" during a school play.
"When I was a sophomore in high school, by then a dedicated theater nerd, my theater teacher directed a production of the play 'Mother Hicks,' set in the dust bowl. He decided to start the show with a song, and ultimately picked 'Jackson.' I'm a little fuzzy on the details of how we landed on the tune, but I know I was thrilled to be chosen to sing it," Bruce continues. "Years later, as I realize more and more each day how excited I am to pursue a path in country/Americana music, I realize that that play was the first time I really sang that kind of material in a public setting. My biggest regret was that I wasn't a good enough guitarist at that time to accompany myself! Soon after, I borrowed a beat up guitar (that was missing a string) from a friend of mine and taught myself. I learned five stringed versions of Lucinda, Aimee Mann, Shawn Colvin, The Chicks and Joni, and almost immediately started writing songs of my own. I've always been captivated by songs that feel flooded with truth and vulnerability, and I absolutely believe that the imprint left on me by Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and that heartbreakingly simple final song have kept me hungry for that magical intersection of bitter and sweet in my own writing, eager to explore how my voice can find such extraordinary beauty in a gravelly phrase and imperfectly sung note."
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