Trading in pop-country superstardom for Americana authenticity is the way she’s livin’ now.
Lee Ann Womack may not be the first singer to cross from mainstream country stardom to the wild expanse of the Americana terrain (Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter come to mind) but she might be the first to cross over carrying the banner of classic country music.
Although she's moved on from Music Row, Womack looks back at her experience with pride, grace, and gratitude. After all, it gave her the tools to continue to pursue the music in her heart.
But the rarity of that journey is telling. That she chose an uncertain personal path following music that spoke to her rather than chasing the next chart topper, country music trophy, and filled arena says something about great instincts and guts.
Playing the first of two sold-out shows at the historic Kessler Theater in the Oak Cliff district of Dallas, the new path appears to agree with her. Fighting through allergies with a litany of liquids — hot tea, water, and white wine supplied by a fan — Womack took the stage with a big smile framed in flowing blonde tresses and wearing a tasteful white ruffled blouse.
Womack's production might have changed across her career, but the core of the music — the songs, the heart from a singer's perspective — have always stayed true.
Her huge pop/country hits like "I Hope You Dance" and "A Little Past Little Rock" slotted comfortably in the set list with Hayes Carll- and Chris Knight-penned cuts from her current critically acclaimed release The Way I'm Livin'.
Two appropriately rustic wood planks draped with Edison bulbs flanked her and the band. Her voice was barely diminished by Dallas' unseasonal pollen dusting as it soared over her excellent band -— Dave Dunseath on drums, Ethan Ballinger on master twang guitar and mandolin, Samson Grismon on boghouse and electric bass (who can apparently tune the latter by hearing the vibrations up his arm as he rests his head on his shoulder, which he did several times), and Zach Rundquist on fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and Dobro.
Aside from musicianship and well-crafted songs, there was nothing fancy expected nor provided. The crowd came to hear a style of music that goes in and out of favor: country music without airs.
As Womack said from the stage after her opener “Never Again, Again,” "Thank you for loving real country music."
She was kind enough to afford an interview a few days after the show.
Cowboys & Indians: You mentioned from the stage the other night that by the time you got to Nashville "they had stopped making country music.” What is country music to you?
Womack: It's the kind of country music that I grew up with. They were songs about real life instead of songs that sound like they're being made up. I like steel guitars and fiddles. Nashville country music used to be its own thing. Now it has become a watered-down version of something else. Country music is still country music but music row is not that anymore.
C&I: You had a very successful career in the Music Row system and now you've taken a different path. Did Music Row leave you or did you leave Music Row?
Womack: I think Music Row left me a long time ago. It left the music I love a long time ago. Which is actually fine. It makes what I do more unique. The change in the industry is not a complaint, it's just an observation.
C&I: Was there a singular event when you moved on or was it gradual?
Womack: I've always been on this road. My first single "Never Again, Again" was so traditional country. We had Ricky [Skaggs] and Sharon [White] come in and sing on it, so I started out that way. Along the way I recorded some things that was a bit more commercial, but I on the whole I did the music I wanted to do. The irony of all this is I had one of the pop crossover songs (with 2000's title track “I Hope You Dance”) but on that same record it starts and ends with a bluegrass song. [It starts with] “The Healing Kind” co-written by Ronnie Bowman, who's a bluegrass guy, and ends with “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” by David Hanner.
C&I: You have a knack for picking great songs that endure. Those you mentioned and the ones on your new album The Way I'm Livin' with songs by Chris Knight and Hayes Carll. How do you choose a song?
Womack: I'm not sure, there's just a feeling I get when I hear a song. I'm not afraid to take a chance with those songs. Some singers might say "I'd love to cut that song, but that would never work." So I cut what I like and it helps that Frank [Liddell, Womack's husband and producer] is looking for those kinds of songs.
C&I: Country music used to work in adult themes, whether love, cheating, drinking, or hurting. That seems to be lost in most mainstream country. But you still work in those themes. What happened to those adult stories?
Womack: It's funny for me to see people approaching middle age singing juvenile stuff. The only reason I can see they're doing it is it's working.
C&I: You mean getting radio play?
Womack: Yeah. But they want to do it. I'm fortunate enough to do what I want, and I can only assume that this is what they want to do. When George Jones sang about drinking, you got the feeling that he was sorry about it. To me, that's a real drinking song. There's an art to Jones or Paycheck or whomever, there's a feeling of remorse. Now it feels like it's always party time.
C&I: There are a lot of people that are glad you are doing what you want. The Way I'm Livin' was up for a Country Album of the Year Grammy and has received really great reviews.
Womack: It's so nice. I hear so much great music now Frank or my kids or friends turn me on to. I had Amanda Shires opening for me and Jason [Isbell] came out and played with her. To work with talented people like that is such a blessing. It feeds my soul and makes me happy, and that what's important to me. To sit back and listen to [Dallas show opener] Adam Hood, you know he's from the American South when he opens his mouth. It's something I can relate to.
C&I: There's a new breed of performer — like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Mickey Guyton, and Kelsey Waldon — that are influenced by an earlier version of country music, and they're attracting a growing audience.
Womack: It's interesting. I've watched my own kids, how they are not beholden to whatever is shoved down their throat. The Internet has allowed them to search out alternatives. It's so easy, one performance on YouTube leads to another and another. It’s so easy. But 20 years ago you had what was on the radio and that was it. I'm glad younger listeners are seeking out great music.
C&I: Younger listeners also seem to have less allegiance to boundaries or genre.
Womack: Right, they don't put boxes around things. I've noticed that with my kids and my friends. It's fun and exciting. In a way, it's like the Wild West. Wou can do anything you want and find an audience for it.
C&I: Your set list has a few old gospel songs and many of your songs have a measure of faith it them. What does your faith meant to you?
Womack: It's part of my life, part of my fabric. It makes sense to me to do these song because that's who I am.
C&I: Tell me about playing the Emmylou Harris tribute in Washington, D.C.
Womack: It was a privilege. Buddy [Miller] called me up to do it. When I got to town and on the way to the venue, I got a call from Buddy asking me " What key are you doing 'Pancho and Lefty' in?" I said, "What are you talking about?" He was talking about doing the Townes Van Zandt song with Steve Earle. I guess some people had discussed it but no one had told me. I just about had a heart attack. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I'll never forget that night.
C&I: How did you meet Julie and Buddy Miller?
Womack: I was out on my first tour and Frank gave me a CD, I forgot which one it was, but once I got everything settled on the bus I put it in and it was fantastic. I had to get all their stuff! Sine then I've sang on their records and they've sang on mine. So now when Buddy calls I'm ready to do whatever because I know it's going to be good. Working with them just feels right.
C&I: What can a young female artist learn from Music Row? The industry is very good at what they do and a struggling banjo player living from a tip jar might like some direction.
Womack: I'm not sure. I'm coming at it from a very different place. I would say, at least in my career, that every time I went with my gut I was never sorry. You'd think I'd realized that along the way. I did some things that were commercial successes, but the stuff I did from the gut, I loved and never regretted. Go with your gut and don't give up. I've known so many young female artists that get discouraged. But when a female artist like Miranda or Taylor makes it, they hit it out of the park.
Visit www.leeannwomack.com for tour dates and more information.