Womack’s country gets ‘Gone’ Lee Ann Womack
Singer’s latest lays bare the grief of love’s inevitable flight
“In some ways, every heartache is like an old Hank Williams song,” Lee Ann Womack sings on the title track of “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone,” her latest album, bone-chilling in its ability to tap straight into the grief and longing that accompany someone’s world falling apart with a gesture as mundane as a “Camry pulling out of a crowded apartment parking lot.”
Released in October, the album’s mix of 14 mournful and feisty originals and cover songs doesn’t try to romanticize love or its inevitable fleeing the way country legends such as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” did. This is music that mimics the way lying on the kitchen floor with your cheek pressed up against the cold linoleum in a puddle of tears feels.
“My music, it’s not a hopeful type of music,” Womack said in a phone interview earlier this year from her home base in Nashville. “It’s country music. It’s Deep South-kind of soul music for the working man.”
Fair-weather fans who remain familiar with Womack through her early aughts crossover hit “I Hope You Dance” may be surprised to find themselves crying into their Cabernet when she performs Saturday at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, but Womack says even that joyful Grammy winner contained the blueprint of this stirring material.
“When I think of ‘I Hope You Dance,’ I don’t think about all the success and all the things that came along with it. I think about the lyric and how real that lyric was,” she says. “I would say there’s a lot on this record that’s like that.”
Twenty years, nine studio albums in and heaps of CMA, ACM and Grammy wins and nominations to her name, Womack, 51, is making the most visceral music of her career. She credits Texas with being her secret weapon for resurrecting the youthful hunger that drives artists just starting out. That’s why she decided to take a break from the “factory” she says Nashville has become for Houston, three hours from her birthplace in Jacksonville, Texas, to hunker down in SugarHill Studios.
“Every time I go back to Texas, I am reminded of why I got in the business in the first place,” she admits. “[I] was full of hopes and dreams and had everything ahead of me, and every time I go back there I feel like that again. I wanted to feel like that while I was making this record.”
With her “little clique” of husband and producer Frank Liddell, co-writers and musicians Waylon Payne and Adam Wright, even daughter Annalise Liddell on guitar in tow, Womack easily reclaimed that childlike wonder. “It happens automatically,” she says of setting foot in Texas. “Like it’s just sort of a Pavlovian response.”
Womack co-wrote more songs on “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone” than any of her other albums. Without a record label pushing deadlines (the album eventually found a home on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records), she credits the surge in creativity to the one thing there’s never enough of. “I had the luxury of having the time to take my time,” she says.
Womack also found the lack of executives concerned about the bottom line, budgetary constraints and the almighty radio single freeing. “There were all kinds of things that I didn’t have to think about,” she says. “That’s the way music should be made. That’s the way art should be made. Real music is not a product.”
The results are a master class in furious hellfire (“All the Trouble,” in which she transforms the word “find” into five syllables of defiance), gauzy resignation (“Hollywood”) and subterfuge (“Talking Behind Your Back”).
Influenced by flipping through Where: When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Alan Jackson is the headliner. Cost: $20-$88.75. Contact: 800-745-3000, LiveNation.com. old family photos, “Mama Lost Her Smile” drips with mystery while also providing commentary on the notion that all pictures are a lie. “You don’t take pictures of the bad times. No one whips out their camera when somebody’s bawling,” Womack explains.
The reason for the matriarch’s missing grin is never resolved.
“I think it’s much better to leave it open,” Womack says before laughing. “’ Cause everybody’s smile might just have a different story. It’s not really about why she quit smiling. It’s just that she did.”
A gifted interpreter, Womack’s vocals veer from pristine to gritty without losing the ache absent from what passes as country music currently on radio stations devoted to the genre. Finding songs to lend her voice to is almost an art itself. “You probably heard a song before and thought, ‘ Gosh, did they write that about me?’ I love discovery as well as writing myself,” she says, but claims she doesn’t have a preference. “I lean more toward Willie Nelson in that I write some of the things I do and some I don’t.”
Choosing the right songs to cover comes down to a “gut thing,” she says. “I either feel it or I don’t.”
The bouncing closing track, “Take the Devil Out of Me” stemmed from just “fooling around” in the studio, the same room where George Jones recorded the original version 60 years ago.
“I wouldn’t say I felt his presence,” Womack deadpans when asked if Jones’ ghost paid her band a visit while putting his immortal words to tape. “I mean, I feel his presence all the time, because I’m obsessed with his singing, but it wasn’t anything otherworldly.”
He’s surely smiling from the great beyond.
“My music, it’s not a hopeful type of music,” Lee Ann Womack says. “It’s country music.”
Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach.