To really understand the Lee Ann Womack story, you have to start at the beginning, in the small East Texas town of Jacksonville and with the music that was on country radio at the time — including the station where her father worked as a DJ. It was the era of “real” country music from the likes of George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Vern Gosdin, and Dolly Parton. That was the stuff Womack cut her teeth on. So, when she started making music of her own, she naturally gravitated toward songwriters who wrote with that same classic spirit. (Yes, okay, she had a big pop crossover song in 2000 with “I Hope You Dance,” but that wasn’t her fault or, necessarily, her choosing. Besides, it was Maya Angelou’s favorite song, so who’s going to argue its merits?)
In 2012, after 16 years as a cog in the country music machine, Womack parted ways with her major label, bought back the record that had been shelved, and found it a new home on Sugar Hill Records. Last Fall, that collection emerged as The Way I’m Livin’ and earned itself a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album. Produced by her husband, Frank Liddell, the album finds Womack putting her flawless voice to work on tunes by Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, and others. It’s the kind of country that country used to be — the kind of country that sings about heartaches, not tailgates. And it’s the kind of country that proves how much Womack still has to offer and how ready she is to offer it.
Quite a fuss has been made about The Way I’m Livin’ taking a step closer to roots music than records past. But, really, not a whole lot changed for you. Maybe a little less polish, but you’re just doing what you do and everybody else took a step in another direction, right?
Seems like pop music stepped toward urban and dance, everybody else in country took a step toward pop and AC, right? And you were left standing right where you were.
Thank you for noticing that! I spend a lot of time saying exactly what you just said. I haven’t really changed that much. On this record, I cut Bruce Robison songs, Julie Miller songs … these are people who I’ve been cutting their songs forever. And I’ve always tried to find new writers — Mando Saenz and people like that — so it’s not really that different for me.
I did tell my manager that I wanted to play different kinds of rooms from here on out, but that’s a strategic move. I just said, “I want to play music in rooms that were built to play music, not built to play basketball.” It’s a difference and it feels different. What it comes down to, for me, is “What does it do for my soul?” I have to enjoy what I do and, unfortunately, I have to be satisfied musically.
You are definitely more suited than most country artists to find a space at Merlefest and AmericanaFest. Is that a byproduct of those guys taking a step that way, but also you being more interested in earning respect and doing your thing than chasing hits?
You know, I was always about that. My first single was called “Never Again, Again.” It was stone country and I had Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White come in and sing the harmony on it. Then, when we were mixing that record, I had to practically wrestle the producer and the engineer like a bear to get them to mix it the way I wanted it with the harmonies. I said, “Go listen to some bluegrass records. The harmonies are as loud — sometimes louder — than the lead vocal.” We went round and round and round. I had a vision in mind for myself that came from that place, that roots music place, from the beginning. I had to decide “Who am I going to be in the Nashville music business?” And that was, from the beginning, who I was going to be.
Now, I did have a big, huge pop crossover song. And I was fortunate, in a lot of ways, to have that. You do those kinds of things and you get on Oprah, you get on The Today Show, and all this stuff. And then you become that. I was trying to do both, a lot of times, but I was always trying to get that country music out there.
But having that hit afforded you the luxury of being able to do the other, and you can kind of be a little sneaky about it …
Especially now. I can do whatever I want to do. It’s such a blessing, where I am right now.
So you have found yourself in a few bluegrass situations over the years. If you could cast your dream picking party/jam with your favorite players, living or dead, who would you choose?
Out of anybody? Because we have a lot of those guys … Oh, gosh. Well, Buddy Miller is my favorite.
You gotta have him as the band leader.
[Laughs] Yeah. He’s my favorite. George Jones … the ’50s-’60s Jones. I would love to have been able to sit in a room like this and hear him sing that way. Flatt & Scruggs. Of course, Ralph Stanley. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to do that. Ricky. These are all people that I love. Ronnie Bowman is one of my best friends and his voice is amazing. And I’m lucky enough to get to sit in rooms like this and play with him all the time.
Making a space for yourself in the broader Americana tent, that’s good thinking … even if it is almost accidental. In doing that, you reach people like me. I don’t get drunk on Saturday night or go to church on Sunday morning. But I love your records, and I love Ashley Monroe’s and Brandy Clark’s, but I don’t fit the country demographic. I’m not at all accounted for in that. So it seems like there are a lot of fans being left on the table.
Well, I want ’em. And why is because I don’t like putting labels on stuff so much, even though I call myself a country singer. But what I mean when I say “country” — I don’t mean Music Row. I don’t mean commercial Nashville. I mean I’m from East Texas, a small town where there was nothing going on and I wanted out and I didn’t fit in. So, when I say “country,” I mean “soul.” George Jones is another example. He was just a sad and lonely guy. You heard him sing and, even though I was a 10-year-old little girl, I connected with him. I didn’t drink, but I felt what he was feeling. That’s what I mean more than anything when I say “country.” You know, Americana is really a better label for that. I don’t like labels, but …
Jed Hilly [head of the Americana Music Association] says his definition of Americana is, “If you can taste the dirt through your ears, it’s Americana.”
[Laughs] That’s good.
It’s perfect and it casts such a wide net. It’s soulful and it’s folky and it’s twangy and bluesy … all of it.
Why do I hear so much of Lightnin’ Hopkins in Townes Van Zandt? One person would listen to Townes and go, “I don’t get the connection.” I can just feel it. I can taste it in his music. So I get exactly what you’re saying. Most people don’t, though, especially the people that I’ve been around or marketed to for the past 18 years.
Like you said, you’ve always been a little left-of-center doing Mando songs and Buddy songs, and it was so great to see folks like Hayes Carll and Reed Foehl and Mindy Smith get cuts on your record. Is there something really satisfying for you to shine a little light on these unsung writers?
Well, it is. I don’t really think of it that way, but …
… but you got a Grammy nomination by singing a Hayes Carll tune … that’s cool.
Very cool. I love all those writers and sometimes I feel guilty connecting myself to them. I think, “I hope Hayes doesn’t mind that I cut his song.” Or all of them. But I have such a respect for what they do and just to be able to get up there and sing “Chances Are” … it feels like it’s a part of me. I just love that kind of stuff.
I think the craft of authentically inhabiting and delivering a song you haven’t written is a creative process in its own right, and one that is often under-appreciated, under-respected.
[Nods] Uh huh.
Patsy Cline, Bonnie Raitt… a lot of legends haven’t cared whose name was on the song to make it their own. But have you ever felt any pressure to write more?
Oh, yeah. I do.
Internally or externally?
Both. Well, internally, mostly. But Frank also says, “You underestimate yourself as a writer. You’re a great writer.” I do like to write and I’ve written a ton of songs that I’ve never cut. I love to write and I love to sing, but there’s a disconnect, sometimes, in singing the things that I write. And I’ve never been able to … I will figure that out. Maybe somebody like you can help me figure that out. But there’s a magic in sitting down and having Frank press play on a CD and hearing “I may hate myself in the morning, but I’m gonna love you tonight.” There’s a whole “Oh my God, why didn’t I think of that?” [Laughs] It’s just magic. It’s discovery. And then I want to run right in and cut it. I felt the same way about “Chances Are.”
I wonder if it’s … well, what kind of songs do you write? Are they confessional or are they more story songs?
They’re story songs … I mean, I have a lot of stuff like “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago.”
Because I was going to say, if they’re more confessional, maybe you feel a little bit too exposed.
It can. It can.
I don’t have a degree in this …
[Laughs] Psychology, yeah. Believe me, I’ve thought about that. It can be part of it. It’s something about the discovery, though, of writers and songs that fires me up.
So when you hear a song like “Chances Are” or whatever it is — something that has a lot of soul and a lot of nuance to it — what’s your process of figuring out which way to lean in it, which emotions to stir up?
I don’t even put any thought on that because, when I find a song I connect with that much, it just happens.
If it’s a character that’s a little removed from your own experience, do you ever create pasts and futures for them so you can really step into it — almost like an acting job?
It is like an acting role, sometimes. But there’s a lot less thought that goes into it for me. I’m not good at a lot of things in my life, but that’s one thing that feels really natural to me so I don’t have to think … or I don’t. Maybe I should …
You feel your way through. Which, between the ache and the twang, you were born to sing country. But it would be pretty fun to hear you sing a Beyoncé or an Alanis song. What are your karaoke picks?
Well, I don’t do karaoke, butttt …
If you did …
[Sings] “I know I’m not the only one” … You know that pop song that’s out? I wanted to do it and my oldest daughter said, “You are not doing that. It’s too popular.” She said, “Everybody’s gonna do that song.” That was when it first came out.
Well, right now, everybody’s doing “Girl Crush.”
I haven’t even heard it! I’ve heard about it, but … Is it good?
It’s so good. It’s so good.
I love them.
Well, Lori McKenna …
Oh. She wrote it?
Yeah, it was her with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey … the Love Junkies. It’s funny that it’s just out now for Little Big Town, but all these people are already covering it. I can’t believe you haven’t heard it. You don’t get out much. [Laughs]
I don’t get out much … at all. I don’t. [Laughs]
We touched on this before … even though you’ve had a lot of success, do you feel like your best years are still ahead of you? Because I feel like there are so many women, in particular, of a certain age — 40s and 50s — who are making some of the best music of their careers. You get to a point where it’s like, “I don’t really care what people think.”
That’s exactly right.
That’s where you are?
That’s exactly where I am. It’s not so much that I don’t care what people think, but yeah. I find myself saying all the time, “I don’t care.” If I don’t want to do it, I’m not doing it. Whether it’s an interview or going to meet somebody … “This would really help you … This would be really good for your …” “Mmmm … no.” [Laughs] It’s nice being at that place.
It is! And it applies to all areas of your life. I think it’s when we hit the point where … it’s the hill and we’re either on top or the other side, and it’s just time to coast.
Before I turned 40, I was freaking out. Then, the night before I thought, “You know what? I’m turning 40. Fuck it, I’m just gonna do stuff. I’m going to get a tattoo … I’m going to try weed …”
Yeah! Whatever I want.
Yeah. Things that I hadn’t done or had done at one point and dropped off. Whatever it was. So I made a Fuck It List, instead of a Bucket List because I thought it was more empowering.
[Laughs] Yeah! Definitely. Also, I have kids, so I’m getting to the point where they’re doing their own thing. They’re not kids anymore so with that, too, I feel a little more free to do what I want. But I definitely have that “fuck it” attitude. And I don’t mean to say I don’t care …
It’s not an arrogance or anything like that. It’s just that you know what’s important now, the battles that are worth fighting and the battles that aren’t.
Exactly. It’s freedom.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.