Lee Ann Womack – Dances with wolves
The waitress serving pecan waffles at the north Texas truckstop — and she is far too young to carry such heavy black bags beneath her brown eyes — takes only a few steps from the table before turning back with a flickering smile and the answer to a hundred-mile question: “Lee Ann Womack, that’s who sings ‘A Little Past Little Rock’.”
It is the singular difference between stardom and celebrity, that moment.
Beaten down she may be, all of twenty-three at the most, shoulders permanently hunched against the weight of the world, but in that instant the waitress is not alone, for there is now a voice in her head singing a blues she recognizes, and two people drinking coffee to share it with.
In the suburbs, where most of the people who tune in country radio on their way to work live, the blues are all but forbidden. Banished in a flurry of church groups, prescription pills, self-help infomercials, soccer games, and the forced hilarity of drive-time chatter…in the end there is only exhaustion, and a mortgage to pay. No wonder so much modern country music resembles a commercial jingle and fits unobtrusively into the wallpaper of unexamined lives.
Lee Ann Womack is not, of course, a blues singer; certainly not in the sense that Blind Willie Johnson, Billie Holiday or Hank Williams were blues singers. They sang of enduring on the margins of a cold and indifferent world, and they sang because, really, they had no other choice. Lee Ann Womack sings because she’s always wanted to. Her voice — and song selection — is, like the singer herself, bright, determined, and self-reliant. The best kind of modern country music singer.
And yet, asked about the creative process involved in singing other people’s songs, she promptly, unexpectedly settles upon an essence of the blues. “I think pain is pain,” she says, leaning into her words across the coffee shop table, no flinch in her eyes. “Singing about pain, whether it’s something you went through specifically yourself or you can empathize with whoever did write that lyric, you know what pain is. So I think it helps to have lived a little, been knocked around a little, maybe.”
Self-reliant, but not solitary, for Womack chooses collaborators wisely. Her third album, I Hope You Dance (due May 23 from MCA), is so carefully constructed as to be symmetrical. It begins with “The Healing Kind”, written by bluegrassers Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck, and the opening couplet “Starin’ out the window at the sinkin’ sun/Another painful day is done.” A dozen songs later it closes with Don Williams’ classic “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good” (penned by Dave Hanner), with Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.
Yes, there are songs from the factory in between, but because she understands how the factory works as well as anybody, she is able to select them with care. And sing them as if they matter. But she also offers songs that matter outside the factory, including a pair from the Buddy and/or Julie Miller songbook, a chestnut from Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”), and one from Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”). It is, as several friends have observed, as much as one can hope for from the multinationals on Music Row, and perhaps more.
Lee Ann Womack was born in Jacksonville, Texas (pop. 12,765), about 100 miles southeast of Dallas in the northeastern flank of the state, in 1966. She was also born into the music business, for her father worked as a country DJ until he’d earned his master’s in education and became a school principal. Even then, he filled in when somebody got fired or left on vacation.
“I was in the station with him a lot,” she remembers, “but, I was younger, and then I didn’t really spend much time in radio stations again until I started my radio tour for my first record [1997’s self-titled release on Decca]. There was a world of difference, because what he did was at a really small radio station, and he played whatever he wanted to play. I remember thinking that he was a star, of sorts, and I think that’s kinda where I got bitten with the bug of wanting to be on a microphone with people listening to me.”
Years later, when Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson asked Womack to record a track for their second Bob Wills tribute, Ride With Bob, she chose “Heart To Heart Talk” as an homage to her father. “That one was definitely for him,” she says, “because it’s my dad favorite and he’s always wanted me to cut it.”
Though she insists she didn’t know it at the time, Womack spent much of her childhood doing homework for the career she has pursued methodically ever since. “I just couldn’t get enough of the music business,” she says, clearly meaning both the music and the business. “I’m talking about when I was really young. I would go in and get my dad’s records and read all the players’ names, managers, booking agents, record labels, producers, background singers. I knew all of those names when I came to town. All of ’em.”
After high school she moved across the state to South Plains Junior College, just west of Lubbock in a small town called Levelland (pop. 13,986). South Plains offers one of the few programs conferring degrees in bluegrass and country music (Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and Mike Bub of the Del McCoury Band are also alumni), and Womack spent a season touring to California and back with the school’s Country Caravan.
Then she moved to Nashville, where, ten years later, she’s still working (between records, now) to finish a degree from Belmont University. Through Belmont’s music business program, she landed an internship in the A&R department at MCA (the label she now calls home, following its absorption of Decca).
“I learned lots of stuff interning,” she laughs, and the knowing look which accompanies that laugh suggests much of that knowledge is to be carefully guarded. “I learned that there’s the way things are said to be, and then I learned that there’s the way things really are. I got a real good feel of artists that are successful, artists that get dropped, artists that are able to finesse the label, and artists that aren’t, managers who were good at it, ones who aren’t.”