Lee Ann Womack Returns to the Roots She Never (Really) Left
On The Way I’m Livin’, her first album in six years, Lee Ann Womack comes upon the devil, shares a bottle with him (the first taste is free), then crashes to her knees in despair. A few songs later, she picks up a stranger in a bar. She attends church services, too, with what sounds like a Pentecostal congregation, but she has to kill a quart before praying Jesus either saves her soul or gets her out of town. Womack dreams of heading to L.A. or Houston, or — in a lovely, bejeweled suicide note — to heaven. Throughout, the singer best known for her country-era-defining “I Hope You Dance” keeps on dancing with the devil, sleeping with him even, and lives to tell about it. She weeps and gulps her fatal-feeling misery in order to convince herself she ain’t dead yet.
“I believe in finding the hope in a hopeless situation,” Womack says. “There’s some down-and-out character that seems totally at the bottom, and I’m thinking: ‘Well, they could rally now.’
“I’m drawn to those situations and, I guess, to losers.” Her voice places “losers” inside scare quotes. “Maybe I feel like a loser, I don’t know, but I’m drawn to them.”
Womack may well have felt down-and-out these last several years. The Way I’m Livin’ was actually recorded in 2012, becoming her third recorded-but-unreleased album in seven years. That string of terminated projects should stop anyone who cares about country music dead in their tracks: Lee Ann Womack, quite possibly the best country singer of her generation, has mostly been unable to get her music released, let alone played on the radio.
The album is out now only because Womack is learning to see herself less as a mainstream country star and more as a roots-oriented Americana artist. In music business terms, she’s rebranding. From a personal perspective, it’s a rebirth.
Over the last few years, Womack has recorded all over the Americana map. She’s paid tribute to Loretta Lynn, contributed lead vocals to Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr’s Kin project and to the Civil War anthology Divided & United.
She’s cut duets with Jim Lauderdale, Jamey Johnson, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. This Americana thing is also evidence of Womack’s persistence. As has mostly been the case since her debut 17 years ago, The Way I’m Livin’ finds her singing about folks who need a song to get them through tough times. Her “losers” are disconnected from one another, alienated from themselves, their souls and spirits at stake. Her music’s the same as gospel in some ways, just looked at from life’s other side.
“I’m a lot more turned on,” Womack says, “by the kind of gospel music that’s coming from … a sinner.”
Real-Deal Small Town
On country radio these last few years, the setting has been a self-contained, self-satisfied Eden identified as small-town America — a fantasy village where “real” Americans work hard for little pay but don’t much complain about it; where folks drink beer and tequila, lots of it, in or around trucks usually, near large bodies of water; where no one ever gets hurt as a result of all that partying; where almost no one drinks, in the first place, because they hurt. In mainstream country’s version of the small town, you dream big in a world where the close-to-hand options are admittedly few — but enough.
Womack hails from a real small town in east Texas, but even as a child, she ached to hit the highway. Jacksonville, Texas, where she was born in 1966, is the sort of little big town so often imagined as heaven-made for raising kids. Even her own children perceive Jacksonville that quaint way. As Womack related during an interview for an iTunes Originals performance in 2005, her oldest daughter thought mom’s hometown was “so cute,” as if her mother had grown up in Mayberry or along Disney’s Main Street, USA.
“You know that Adam Hood and Brian Keane song?” Womack asked during a lengthy phone conversation last month (referring to “I’ll Sing about Mine”). “The one that goes, ‘You make the place I come from sound like a bad cartoon’? That’s what they” — radio’s postcard-perfect, party-hearty towns — “make me think of compared to where I grew up.”
“When you’re living in a town that small, and you have dreams that are really, really big, it’s tough,” Womack explains. “And, yeah, I wanted out the whole time. I mean, I’m talking about from the time I was very, very young. I remember watching The Porter Wagoner Show, seeing Dolly on there, and I’d think: I want to do that.” When Womack was a precocious little girl, she once told Texas Monthly, her folks liked to show off their youngest daughter to family and friends by encouraging her to “do your Dolly.” “Raspberry red, huckleberry blue, lemon yellow,” little Lee Ann would chirp, mimicking Parton extolling the benefits of Breeze detergent.
Womack absorbed early that country singers weren’t just singers, but also entertainers and, in a related role, salespeople: Dolly hawked soap on the TV, Loretta Lynn pitched for Crisco, and these lessons were reinforced as Womack observed her school principal father’s moonlighting gig as a country disc jockey. She often accompanied him to the studio, singing along as he spun the hits, attentive as he segued into a few words from our sponsors. She got a new view into music: music business.
“We didn’t have a lot … of disposable income. I couldn’t just go buy a record,” she recalls. “But that was OK because there were already a lot of records around our house, and they said: ‘For Promotion Only.’”
Womack grew up loving queens of country like Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy Wynette, but her biggest singing role models have almost always been men. She loved Bob Wills from a very young age, and later thrilled to every new record from Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Conway Twitty (her first concert, at age eight or nine).
Greatest of all was George Jones. “My favorite singer,” she practically shouts. “In! The! World!”
Womack counts her blessings at getting to play, and replay, all those now-classic country records her dad brought home. Those record company promos taught Womack how to sing country. ”Unlike my own children today, I was at the mercy of that collection, and the radio,” she says. “I only heard country music.” Then, practically before the words are out of her mouth, she amends the statement. “And gospel music from church. I sang in the choir at church, and in children’s productions there. Church was our social life.”
Dad working hard day and night, mom making sure the family went to church, Texas heroes twanging up the radio — and a little kid with big dreams. This lines up pretty squarely with the goings on of every simple municipality portrayed on country radio today. Except, that is, for the limits hiding in that “at the mercy of” and in the way Womack stresses, with at least a bit of lingering frustration, the verb in “church was our social life.” The music-loving, churchgoing girl grew into a somewhat bored and very ambitious teenager — “the black sheep of the family,” as she later admitted to People. “I grew up in a small town with nothing to do, so I’d rowdy around and drink.”
“I wanted to be somewhere,” she says today, “where something was happening.”
Where the ‘Real Action’ Was
As soon as she graduated from Jacksonville High, Class of ’84, Womack traded her small town for another, Levelland, in north central Texas. There, South Plains Junior College offered a commercial music major, including an associate of arts degree in bluegrass and country music.
She stayed there only a year, much of which she spent touring throughout the southwest and singing for the college’s most persuasive recruitment tool, a school band called the Country Caravan. Singing and performing regularly only intensified Womack’s conviction that country music was for her. She saw no good reason why she shouldn’t just move to Nashville, where, she’d determined, “the real action was.” Soon enough, she was admitted to Belmont University’s music business program, and before long she landed an internship at MCA Records — a different sort of music business education.
“I learned lots of stuff interning,” she told Grant Alden in 2000. “I learned that there’s the way things are said to be done, and then I learned that there’s the way things really are done. 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 … ”
Still there was the matter of becoming a recording artist herself. Life, both its bright, sunny side and its dark and stormy one, kept interfering with her plans. In 1990, while still at Belmont, Womack married musician and songwriter Jason Sellers. While he played bass for Ricky Skaggs on the road, she stayed home, caring for their new daughter, honing her songwriting skills, and demoing songs for other writers. In 1995, a collection of those performances landed her an artist/songwriter development deal with Sony’s Tree Publishing, which led to her signing with Decca Records in early ’96. Later that year, as she and producer Mark Wright began choosing material for her debut album, and as Decca set to grooming their 30-year-old newcomer to make it big, Womack and Sellers divorced.
The Best-Selling Sisterhood
For as long as there has been something we might think of as “country music,” there’s been somebody, somewhere, complaining that that music sucked — and that it wasn’t even really country music. The complaints grow loudest when the genre escapes its radio format ghetto, as it did in the 1990s, and makes a break for the Promised Land, the pop charts. The default shorthand for the 1990s’ retooling of country’s sonic possibilities, and for the resulting expansion of both its audience and commercial potential, is “Garth Brooks.”
Garth and his “Hat Act” fellows notwithstanding, country’s ’90s boom ultimately became dominated by women. Indeed, the beef as Womack was just beginning her career was not simply that country had become too pop but that it had become too female — too geared, that is, to the troubles and triumphs of minivan-driving suburban soccer moms. The most memorable alternative-country iteration of that complaint came from Robbie Fulks in 1997 on his comic haters anthem “Fuck This Town”: “This ain’t country-western / It’s just soft-rock feminist crap.”
Womack debuted that same year. Back in the country & western days, Womack’s options would likely have been limited to serving as some male star’s “girl singer.” By the late ’90s, though, major Nashville labels were on the lookout for potential female country stars like never before. Why? Because Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, the Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina, Terri Clark, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Mindy McCready, Deana Carter, Reba McEntire, Anita Cochran, Sara Evans, LeAnn Rimes (whose popularity prompted Womack to consider a stage name), Chely Wright, and Wynonna were all selling lots and lots of records. That’s why.
Womack’s first two albums, Lee Ann Womack in 1997 and Some Things I Know from 1998, went gold and platinum, respectively. But Womack stood apart from her best-selling sisters. For starters, she was instantly pegged as a traditional country artist. That tag was correct, mostly. Womack was, and continues to be, a traditionalist — though typically not in the retro, let’s-make-this-music-sound-like-the-old-music way that people tend to use the term. It’s true that Womack’s debut single, a powerful testament of romantic weakness called “Never Again, Again,” had an unmistakably retro vibe; it was Nashville Sound balladry with the twang reinserted. But “Never Again” didn’t make her reputation. It didn’t even make the Top 20.
No surprise. While mainstream country has long been considered old-fashioned compared to other formats, its audience has bought in to full-on retro moves only infrequently. More likely to climb the charts have been traditionalists who are both grounded and able to innovate — the type Womack adores. Dolly and Loretta, Conway and Merle, Wills and Price and Jones — each proclaimed a debt to the legends who preceded them while making sure no one ever mistook their new sounds for the old ones.
From her self-titled debut, “The Fool” was Womack’s first significant radio success and succeeded in just this traditionalist manner. The teary twang in Womack’s pleading recriminations, plus the conflicted domestic drama she’s recounting (the fool is her), betray a clear devotion to the canons of Conway and Tammy. Her nuanced vibrato nods to early Reba. But the record’s half-of-a-conversation narrative structure, its dramatic classical-piano-and-strings arrangement, and its wistful, sky-scraping bridge and chorus proclaim loud and clear: Garth Brooks, country pop, 1997.
The remember-the-past-but-sing-and-play-in-the-language-of-the-present approach of Womack’s debut was abetted by her Decca-assigned producer. Mark Wright had already earned a reputation for walking the traditionalist line with acts such as Clint Black and Mark Chesnutt, and he and Womack teamed again for her 1998 follow-up. Some Things I Know was filled with great cuts from old-school masters like Bobby Braddock, whose “I’d Rather Have What We Had” found Womack missing the days when she was slipping around with her man instead of married to him, and from alternative-country’s Buddy and Julie Miller, whose “Don’t Tell Me” Womack rendered with elemental anguish.
The album included two more big hits as well. In “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” Womack hilariously mocks the woman now engaged to her ex — and mocks herself, laughing to keep from bawling. “A Little Past Little Rock,” country-pop at its finest, finds Womack and Wright working, thematically and musically, in the line of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Except now it’s the woman heading somewhere better. “Don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do,” Womack cries, making her decision to leave sound necessary and terrifying at once. Her past rides shotgun via harmony vocals from former husband Jason Sellers. Her future remains unknown and untouchable.
She keeps driving.
A Blessing and a Curse
Womack was now a major star. Her music inspired hyperbole (Billboard proclaimed it “impossible to say enough positive things” about her), and Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, and Ricky Skaggs guested on her albums. Garth Brooks declared, before disappearing into “Chris Gaines,” that he was “in search of the innocence on Lee Ann Womack’s face.”
She was selling lots and lots of records, too. “A Little Past Little Rock” and “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” for instance, had not only been #2 country hits but midsized pop ones as well. Womack was doing all of this — moving units while garnering praise from critics and fellow musicians — with a body of work that was open-arms inviting yet downbeat. The characters in Womack’s recordings were broken-hearted or otherwise down in the dumps. They were divorcees or children of divorce, in their cups, in torment, in hell or on the way. Womack’s specialty, it turned out, was singing soulfully about “losers,” hard-pressed folk who now and then found themselves in desperate need of a hand to hold. Or a good reason to keep working hard at a job or relationship they hated. Or (sometimes these are all the same thing) a song to sing.
For millions of people in the summer of 2000, that song was “I Hope You Dance.” “When I first heard ‘I Hope You Dance,’” Womack told me during an interview in 2001, “it made me think of my children … [but] everyone has someone in their life they wish these things for, even if it’s sort of themselves … It’s a song that crosses boundaries.” And formats. The title track to Womack’s third album, “I Hope You Dance” debuted on the Hot Country Singles chart in March, topped the chart just after Independence Day, then stayed put for five weeks. It hit #32 on the pop charts at the same time. When the songs was re-released in early 2001, it climbed to #14 pop while also topping the Adult Contemporary chart for almost three months.
The record was a phenomenon. Around the country, people played it at proms, weddings, funerals. Oprah Winfrey had Womack on her program to sing the song, explaining it had been recommended to her by the poet Maya Angelou. (Womack sang “I Hope You Dance” at Angelou’s memorial service this past June.) An illustrated children’s book of the lyrics came out while the single was still on the charts, and people’s need for the song only intensified after 9/11. Over the years, Womack has performed the song for telethons and benefits, at halftime during the Orange Bowl, at the Indianapolis 500, at the Republican National Convention, on an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and at a Nobel Peace Prize concert.
Womack has long since come to see that for many listeners the song is “happy and sunny, all tied up in a nice little package.” It’s possible “happy and sunny” is how songwriters Mark Sanders and Tia Sillers intended it: typed on the page, their lyrics amount to little more than a musical greeting card. To be fair, the single’s video, which features Womack smiling beautifully at her daughters as they glide about like ballerinas, only reinforces such a one-sided reading. Then again, those smiles and that dancing take place beneath a sky that’s overcast and dismal, and the video transpires beyond the sort of gate normally seen at graveyards.
That’s how Womack sings the song. Bittersweet, with an overcast smile, double-edged. “I think my vocal performance,” she says, “comes from a more pessimistic place, comes from a darker place. It’s melancholy.”
Listen to the record: A hesitant, rolling and roiling rhythm; a gloomy, even dangerous David Campbell-string arrangement heavy on the bruised, brooding cellos; a haunting, questioning counter-melody voiced by Sons of the Desert (“Time is a wheel in constant motion…”) that keeps rising unexpectedly like storm clouds on the horizon. Listen to Womack’s voice: She hopes her children will never sell out or be broken-hearted or go hungry, hopes they’ll never forget that they’re part of something larger than themselves. Yet, with each fervent wish for her loved ones, Womack’s on-guard phrasing and weary affect underscore all the heartaches, disappointments, and failures the singer knows are bound to come. Not because she’s a fatalist, but because her loved ones are only human and the world is a hard place.
“And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance … ,” Womack practically whispers to her children, or maybe just to herself. She pauses, cautious, and the music pauses, too, like everyone is looking both ways before committing themselves to crossing a minefield. Then, just as the music again rises, or crashes down around her, Womack cries: “Dance!” It feels like jumping for joy. But it feels scary, too, like a leap of faith.
As with “Born in the USA” or “MMMBop,” “I Hope You Dance” is one of those immensely popular records that even its legion of fans seems mostly to have only half heard. And now, like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was for George Jones or “Okie from Muskogee” is for Merle Haggard, “I Hope You Dance” is a song Womack knows she will be more or less expected to perform every time she takes a stage for the rest of her life.
For Womack, “I Hope You Dance” has been both blessing and curse.
“The blessing,” she explains, having lived with the song for more than a decade, “is that it’s wonderful to be a part of people’s lives like this … . Not every singer gets to have a song like that. People tell me all the time, ‘My sister had a baby and I gave her your CD … and now we play it every year on her birthday.’ Or they say, ‘It was played at my graduation.’ All of these monumental moments! And they attach those moments to ’I Hope You Dance,’ and me. That’s a blessing.
“Especially now, ’cause I’m starting to see the second wave of it. These kids, whose parents gave them the song when they were much younger, are now coming out to the shows — and they think of me like I thought of Dolly Parton. That’s a blessing, too.”
But the curse, Womack explains, is that “once you have a song that big in regular radio rotation, it becomes the only song from me that there is. And I become the song … . And then you play shows and you come out and people expect you to be almost like a motivational speaker, and for the show to be almost like a religious experience … . I had to move my meet-and-greets to after the show because so many people associate the song with a death … . The song helped them deal with the loss, and they have come to tell me how the song helped them heal. It helped them heal. That’s amazing.
“But I would have to hear all of these stories before I went out on stage. And I wasn’t singing just one song, or I wasn’t doing 90 minutes of a certain kind of song. I had ‘Never Again, Again.’ I had ‘The Fool,’ and all these honky-tonk songs, country songs I had to deliver. So it did become sort of an albatross in some ways.”
Always a Little Americana
Even as “I Hope You Dance,” the single, became in part a trap for Womack, the album of the same name anticipated The Way I’m Livin’ and Womack’s ostensibly unprecedented embrace of Americana. On Dance’s Top Five second single, “Ashes by Now,” Womack and Mark Wright blew up Rodney Crowell’s slow-burning original into a raging, rocking firestorm. The album also included a lilting singer-songwritery take on that old fingers-crossed Don Williams prayer, “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” plus versions of songs written by Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am,” a mother-daughter divorce song that Tammy Wynette could’ve sung), and Buddy and Julie Miller. Womack and Wright make Julie’s desolate “I Know Why the River Runs” sound heavy and haunted. And her version of the Millers’ cheating classic, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” is somehow more menacing than Buddy’s original recording from the year before — and more fun.
Alone on I Hope You Dance, “Does Your Ring” was produced by a new musical partner for Womack, Frank Liddell, her newlywed husband and the father of her second daughter. (In a 2008 Tennessean piece titled “Ten Crazy Things I’ve Done,” Womack placed “Got knocked up by the ‘A&R’ guy” at number one.)
“Does Your Ring Burn My Finger” heralded things to come. Liddell and Womack’s first musical collaboration is a reminder: “Americana” has been a vital part of the way Womack’s been living for a long while.
Think about it. A twangy, emotionally present, emotionally double-edged vocalist tackles a bunch of songs about grown-up troubles and hard-won hopes, in honky tonk-ish or bluegrassy settings, all written by a who’s who of rootsy singer-songwriters.
Could it be that a great Americana album was hiding inside the country-pop I Hope You Dance all along? Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Something Worth Leaving Behind
Across her first three albums, each better than the last, Womack fashioned a distinctive traditional style. She was clearly connected to country’s past, but by leaning pop, Womack was able to speak clearly to and from her genre’s present. Her future as a rooted country singer with great crossover potential looked brilliantly bright.
But then I Hope You Dance sold three million-plus copies. For Womack’s follow-up, MCA (which had absorbed and shuttered Decca not long after the release of her second album), was predictably eager for more triple platinum, please. Womack and Wright tried to oblige, prompting not a few cynics to sneer a pointed line from “I Hope You Dance” right back at the pair: “When you come close to selling out, reconsider.”
That reaction was more glib than helpful. For one thing, the already commercially targeted I Hope You Dance was more masterpiece than sell-out. For another, the desire to do powerful work one is proud of, while also insuring as many people as possible hear and use that work within a conversation that’s not just subcultural but national, is a nearly universal artistic goal for artists as ambitious as Womack. Maybe the more apt “I Hope You Dance” lesson to quote here would be the one about taking a spin around the dance floor when you get the chance?
Where I Hope You Dance had been a sensation, however, Something Worth Leaving Behind was a dud, with no hits to speak of and no project-salvaging album tracks, either. It sold 300,000 copies — a number most artists would kill for but only a tenth of Womack’s previous effort. This was at least a little surprising as the new album closely followed, albeit superficially, the template of its predecessor. The title track and first single was another string-swirling, mid-tempo ballad with Sons of the Desert guesting on the harmonies. And another message song. Those were a big thing on country radio post 9/11, as other acts set out to capitalize on the sunny-side-only embrace of “I Hope You Dance” from the year before. (Remember Martina McBride’s “Blessed” or Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff”?)
Yet, next to “I Hope You Dance,” “Something Worth Leaving Behind” was strained and pretentious (“Amadeus” is rhymed with “Jesus”) instead of matter-of-fact humble. The song, written by Brett Beavers (Womack’s touring bassist at the time) and Tom Douglas, was about the consolations of settling rather than risk and inevitable hurt. It motivated no one to sing along, at graduations or anywhere else. The “innocence” that Garth Brooks and others had only recently found in the singer’s face was replaced, on the glamour-shot album cover, by thick mascara and exposed inner thigh.
Womack and Wright, and Liddell (who produced four tracks), had once again drawn material from first-rate songwriters — Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg, David Grissom, Bruce Robison — but the songs themselves were mostly second rate. A pair of Julie Miller compositions — “I Need You” and “Orphan Train” — were exceptions. But this time Wright’s usually song-centric production swamped Miller’s stories with crowded, squalling arrangements. Like contestants on American Idol (a new hit that summer), Womack found herself pushed into diva territory, and the result was that her subtle voicings and multisided meanings — key elements of her country-ness, the very aura of her Lee Ann Womack-ness — were drowned out or abandoned altogether. That “Orphan Train,” ostensibly bound for sanctuary and forgiveness, sounded noisy, threatening, like no train you’d want to board. By any measure, Something Worth Leaving Behind was the least successful album of Womack’s career.
Musically disconnected from her roots, removed from the tradition she loved, with little gained in return — she’d seen a chance to dance, taken it, and hit the floor chin first — Womack seemed to have concluded that maybe it was time to dance again with the one who’d brung her.
Getting Back in the Game
Womack set about collecting new songs, recording here and there in the meantime. She contributed a smoldering version of Hank Cochran’s country-pop “She’s Got You” to a 2003 Patsy Cline tribute. Early in ’04, she guested on “Sick and Tired,” from the Americana-leaning Cross Canadian Ragweed, and later sang another poppy old country gem, “I’ll Never Be Free,” with Willie Nelson. (They had earlier teamed for the Grammy-winning “Mendocino County Line.”)
That same year, she released her first single in a year and a half, “The Wrong Girl.” The rhythm swung and chugged hard on that one, propelling Womack to make a romantic case to an uptown-bound guy who’s already got everything he needs, including a glitzy girlfriend: “I bet she never listens to Merle!”
As far as country radio was concerned, though, it was Womack who was wrong. She hadn’t scored a Top 10 hit in nearly half a decade, and “The Wrong Girl” became the singer’s fifth consecutive single to peak outside the Top 20. Womack, it seemed, was so five years ago, one more female country star who’d had a moment but who, at 37, was now deemed too old and too old-school to appeal to mainstream country audiences. In the years since her debut, radio playlists had shrunk, become more youth-focused, and skewed increasingly masculine.
Then, for a moment, it seemed as if Womack would transcend her music business troubles, thanks to her long-time-coming sixth album, 2005’s There’s More Where That Came From, particularly its debut single, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning [But I’m Gonna Love You Tonight].” It climbed to #10 on the country charts, and #66 pop. “I was thrilled when [it] came along,” Womack recalled in the iTunes Originals interview. “It allowed me to put ‘I Hope You Dance’ behind me and still have another big hit.”
The record did that amazingly, even though it was as deeply conflicted (read: adult) as any number of old Conway Twitty hits, even though its traditionalism bent backward all the way to retro. “I May Hate Myself” was built of old records. Singing over an acoustic guitar lick swiped from Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes,” a blue-and-lonesome Womack gives into temptation and agrees to hook up, again, with an ex she knows is no good for her. “I know it’s wrong,” she cries, loading her moan with pleasure and guilt alike. Behind her, fiddle and pedal steel pine through the sweet-and-sour hook to “Little Green Apples.” The single eventually snagged best-of-the-year honors from the Country Music Association.
Thanks in part to “Wrong Girl” producer Byron Gallimore, honors also went to the entirety of There’s More Where That Came From, which was instantly proclaimed a modern-day connection to the genre’s still-honored-but-little-used past. The very name of the album — title track co-written by Steel Drivers Chris Stapleton —argued there was still water in the well. The album’s retro rep was nurtured, as well, by its vintage-looking cover, inspired by 1970s efforts from the likes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
On the other hand, one could be forgiven for concluding that critics who lauded the album for its retro sensibility had never bothered to check out the second half of their advances, charmingly delivered on 12” vinyl. What they’d have found on “Side B” wasn’t retro in the least: rocking power chords, acoustic picking, chamber strings, moody story songs with echoing electric licks, and sunny pure-pop melodies clouded by spare and eerie mandolin. There’s More Where that Came From, it turned out, was old and new, then and now, bright and dark.
And there she was again: Lee Ann Womack, country traditionalist.
The album’s best cut might’ve been the one Womack co-wrote, “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago,” contemplating her wrinkles in the bathroom mirror and regretting the loss of her youthful self. “Water under the bridge,” she sings in the mournful middle section, shrugging her shoulders, fighting an urge to settle. Her frail-feeling voice strains for something nearly forgotten and out of reach. And then she surrenders: “I guess that’s all life really is. That’s just the way it is.”
Coming on a 21st-century country record, those lines were shocking. Country songs once understood that fatalistic musings are necessary sometimes, precisely because people sometimes feel fatalistic — and because it helps knowing you’re not alone. “Sometimes,” Womack has said, “I find solace in a sad song.”
‘You’ve Never Even Heard Country Music’
There’s More Where That Came From signaled a return to form for Womack — and it seemed to predict ongoing success. Instead, it marked the beginning of her most bruising music business education yet.
After “I May Hate Myself,” subsequent singles, including “Twenty Years,” gained “only a tepid reception at radio,” according to Billboard. (Number two on that “Crazy Things” list: “Called a certain radio station and asked them to please mail the term ‘country’ back to me, since they clearly weren’t using it.”) Around the same time, Womack’s label affiliation was shifted from MCA Nashville to Mercury in order to “even out the label rosters,” per parent company Universal Music Group Nashville.
In late summer 2006, Womack released a single with her new label, the pedal-steel-sparked and island-groove-based “Finding My Way Back Home.” It charted for only a few weeks and only as high as #37. An album was slated to follow, got delayed in part so Womack could record new songs, then was scrapped altogether. (Crazy list item #3: “Spray-painted ‘You’ve never even heard country music’ on the side of a Music Row building.”) She was moved back to MCA Nashville. The only music she released in 2007 was a wondrous cover of “The Weight” for a tribute to the Band—“I saw Carmen and the Devil—walkin’ side-by-side”—and, with helium-drunk harmonies provided by Buddy and Julie Miller.
In 2008, Womack released Call Me Crazy (the album that prompted her crazy list in the first place). It was a hit-and-miss affair. A wonderful neo-honky-tonker called “Last Call,” co-written by Erin Enderlin and the soon-to-be-much-sought-after Shane McAnally, gave her another decent-sized radio success. It sounded like the sequel to “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” her last hit three years earlier, except now when her old lover called she didn’t even pick up.
Tony Brown produced this time — Womack had worked across the hall from him during her intern days — and the album included a little bit of everything, as if the pair were casting about for something, anything, that might stick: several quiet acoustic-based tracks sat alongside a mysterious art house oddity called “The Bees,” and a straightforward duet with George Strait shared space with Americana cuts from Jim Lauderdale and Chris Stapleton. “Solitary Thinkin’,” a simmering country-soul number written by Waylon Payne, was the second single. Like nearly all of her singles in these years, it cracked the Top 40, just briefly, barely, and disappeared.
Call Me Crazy, meanwhile, struggled to break six figures. She began work on a follow up, releasing another single, “There Is a God,” in late 2009, and telling The Boot about album tracks “Talking Behind Your Back” (“a good girlie song”) and “You Do Until You Don’t.” Like her abandoned Mercury project, this MCA album never saw the light of day. Twenty years earlier, when she’d interned there, Womack witnessed up close how some artists are unable to finesse the label any longer and are in danger of being dropped. Now, Womack was one of those artists.
“I was trying to maintain the integrity of country music and also fit into the commercial world,” Womack recently told journalist Peter Cooper about the several frustrating years that led her, at last, to make a record like The Way I’m Livin’.” “You want everything you do to be a big hit, but how bad do you want it? What are you willing to do? Where are you willing to bend?”
A Green Light, and Then a Red
Back in small-town east Texas, Womack heard Porter and Dolly, George and Tammy, and thought: I want to do that. Now, she didn’t know what to do. At that point, quite unexpectedly, her record company told her to just go ahead and do it.
“When I made this new record,” Womack says of The Way I’m Livin’, “I made it for Luke Lewis, who was at [parent company] Universal at the time. He said to me, ‘I would love to hear a record where you and Frank [Liddell] went into the studio and … didn’t worry about marketing or radio or anything like that. I’d just like to hear what you guys would do.’ So that’s the record we made.”
No pressure or overthinking, no sales targets, just the most double-barreled music she and her husband knew how to make. The dream-come-true project was slated for a 2012 release. But MCA didn’t release it.
“Lewis left,” Womack remembers. “[Former Capitol Records head] Mike Dungan came in and literally looked at me like, ‘What do you want me to do with this?’ There was some talk about going back in and cutting some other things, you know, for radio. And I just said: ‘No.’”
That made three full-length album projects killed in seven years. But the rejection of The Way I’m Livin’, which Womack reckoned among her best work, was especially soul-crushing. Then again, as her catalog has proven repeatedly, in the most deeply felt ways, what’s going to wind up a blessing or a curse is often difficult to sort out in real time. The rejection of The Way I’m Livin’ may turn out to be one of the best things that ever to happen to Lee Ann Womack.
A New Tradition
The Way I’m Livin’ begins with lonely acoustic guitar, picked and strummed. Womack enters then, sounding fragile, a little teary but smiling, and … that’s the whole arrangement. The track’s relative silence, right-off-the-bat, was intended, Womack says, as “a kind of palate cleanser.”
“When I think of all the things people are going to get now, I wanted to make sure I turned them completely around, a complete U-turn from every record they had from Nashville sitting on their desk that day.”
That opening track, called “Prelude: Fly,” is the first sign that The Way I’m Livin’ is going to be different. It’s also the first sign the album’s going to be the same, in key respects, and thank goodness. The song’s a death wish, for one thing, reaching past today’s predominantly trouble-free country scene to such classic suicide numbers as Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter” or Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party,” while still sounding current. The song’s poppy melody and starry-eyed imagery complicate its depressed theme just as Womack’s voice is simultaneously morbid and mellifluous.
The album’s centerpiece is its doom-saying title track, which begins “I met the devil on the side of the road one day.” Womack sings that line unremarkably, as if Ol’ Scratch were as ordinary a roadside distraction as litter or road kill. She’s either working a metaphor for alcoholism (“One drop was all it took / To get my name in his book”) or delivering an object lesson of the drinker’s life like the one Ol’ Hank shared in “Lost Highway” (“It’s too late to rescue me”). Her story is a maelstrom of pessimism and desire either way, stormy weather and no shelter in sight. When she sings “I sleep all day, and I’m out all night,” she makes us know how exquisite all her carousing has been, and how wretched.
The music behind her compounds this conflict. Building slowly, rising and collapsing through wracked close harmonies, the record eventually explodes into a string-arrangement-versus-electric-guitar battle that sounds like flames licking, souls screaming, the end of the world. “The arrangement is gee-nius,” Womack gushes, breaking into incredulous, joyous laughter.
Those cello-heavy strings in particular, courtesy of arranger Chris Carmichael, evoke several earlier rooted-but-poppy death knells — “Ode to Billie Joe,” “House of Secrets,” “I Hope You Dance” — and earns a place alongside them. The original version of this Mark Wright song (included on The Wrights’ Red and Yellow, Blue and Green) is arresting, too, but static, with distancing processed vocals focused more on mood than consequential emotion. Lee Ann Womack’s “The Way I’m Livin’” is for the ages.
“I was mad for that song when I heard it,” she remembers. “I played with it on the guitar and in my mind. Sometimes you just hear a new interpretation or orchestration for something. And Frank had a lot to do with that, too.
“Then once you get in the studio, you start playing and singing it and the musicians join in, and it becomes something new. That’s why it’s important to have a producer like Frank: He … says let’s let this become something. [It’s] not where the musicians shuffle in and they’re doing a 10, 2, and a 6 that day, and ‘Okay, let’s hear the demo, great, we got it, here we go, put it in the red.’
“It’s not that. It’s ‘let us wrestle this thing to the ground, let’s take it halfway around the world and back, then see what it is.’”
Womack and Liddell have chosen several songs — by Bruce Robison, Neil Young, Mando Saenz, Chris Knight — you may have heard before. Yet each familiar number is recast, newly strange. Womack’s misery on Buddy Miller’s “Don’t Listen to the Wind” feels free — beyond her control, uncompressed. When Hayes Carll sings “Chances Are,” his dissolution is inevitably undercut by his charm. When Womack sings the same song, it’s existential, gritty kin to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It through the Night.” “The band just started playing a simple song I used to know,” Womack murmurs, her mind clearing for just a moment. She takes a chance: “I take your hand, and walk you out, and dance … ”
The stakes are sky high, as they are all through the album; sin’s wages are perpetually on the verge of being paid. The Way I’m Livin’ is a beautiful, harrowing reminder of just why it is people need songs like “I Hope You Dance” in the first place.
Music That Is Right Now
MCA let Womack go in 2013. In April of this year, after what Hollywood Reporter called “one of the livelier bidding wars in Nashville history,” she signed with Sugar Hill Records. The Way I’m Livin’ arrived, at long last, last month. Its amazing title-track single was released last summer but didn’t chart.
Another missed opportunity for Womack, of course. But also for country radio, for the vitality of the tradition moving forward, for anyone who believes pop music can matter more when more people hear it. The assessments of tin-eared label execs to the contrary, it’s easy enough to hear “The Way I’m Livin’” fitting in on the radio if it had been released as planned in 2012. It shares a Southern gothic sensibility with that year’s The Band Perry chart-topper “Better Dig Two” and is discontented and quiet, in spots, like Kasey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ’Round,” all before those raging, radio-friendly strings show up.
Water under the bridge. Two years on, country radio is more a boys-will-be-boys club than ever. Solo women are endangered and women pushing 50, like Womack, are extinct. Big-time country songwriting, meanwhile, has become increasingly circumscribed. There are thrilling exceptions, but the tendency at present is toward the trouble-free —monochromatic, one-dimensional, emotionally stunted.
“There are a lot of things people think about,” Womack says. “But radio doesn’t talk about them. Not now. There are a lot of drinking songs out there, but it’s more like, you know, ‘Raise your glass.’ There can be serious consequences there, but that’s not the part of the story people tap into these days … .”
That sort of dissenting take is just one reason why Womack’s removal from the national radio mix is a loss. But what a gift it is to have Womack back! Hearing, finally, this traditionalist album of Womack’s “gospel songs from sinners” is a blessing. Her shift from corporate country to indie Americana is bound to be reported as a break with, or pivot from, her past. That’s true. But it’s important to remember, as well, that what Womack is doing now, what she will do, represents cohesion and continuity. Going Americana, Womack gets to keep doing what the best of her work has accomplished since the start: find great songs from great songwriters, make those songs sound connected to the old ones, make them sound new, then sing the bittersweet hell out of them.
“I didn’t set out to be a champion of traditional country … ,” Womack says. “And left to my own devices I might tend to drift toward making music that had already been done. But with Frank’s direction on this record, we were very much about music needing to evolve.”
“That’s what we did,” she adds, looking back while looking ahead. “We said, let’s take my roots, that east Texas dirt where I’m from — and let’s make music that is right now.”
David Cantwell was a Senior Editor and frequent contributor during No Depression’s years in print — see a full list of his contributions to the print mag. His is the author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind and co-author of Heartaches by the Number.