If you grew up listening to country music, then there's a good chance that you won't recognize what gets called country music today. Acts like Bob Wills, George Jones and even Bill Monroe don't really occupy the airwaves anymore, only to be replaced with a new form of "pop country" music that seems to have lost a bit of the human spirit that helped make the genre. However, when you look to some of the independent labels, there's plenty of humanity in the artists that call those labels home.
While Texas' Lee Ann Womack was a part of the big country music machine for 15 years, her latest streak of records on independent labels has shown that there's plenty of heart left in country music. The Houston Press was more than honored to chat with her, ahead of her performance here this Thursday.
Growing up in the East Texas town of Jacksonville, the youngest of two daughters to her mother, a teacher and her father a local disc jokey and principal, Womack has been in and around country music her whole life. As a child she helped her father choose records to play on the air, making us wonder who were her favorites growing up. "Well, always George Jones. I loved Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, we had a lot of Ray Price records because he was my father's favorite, and plenty of Bob Wills as well," replies Womack.
When you look at Womack's career, it shows a lifetime of someone balancing a family and a career. Starting off as an A&R representative for MCA Records, Womack took her time getting into the industry as an artist. Asked if she felt like it'd been 20 years since her debut album, Lee Ann Womack, she replied, "sometimes it does and sometimes not at all. When I began, I never thought "well this is where I'll be 20 years in," I only thought about getting started."
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Three records in, Lee Ann Womack became a huge success with the release of the hit song "I Hope You Dance" and the album by the same name. A Grammy, an Academy of Country Music award, a performance at the Nobel Peace Prize concert and tons of success all came fast, and put Womack at the top of the country music charts. "It was a blur. It happened so fast and I didn't enjoy it. I had young kids and I had a lot on my mind. A whole lot about my career then I wasn't really digging. Being on a major label like MCA, I always felt like I was working for someone else, rather than for myself."
With so many artists leaving the major label system, we asked what the difference between being on a large label and a smaller label is like. "For me, when I got to Nashville I worked for the MCA A&R team. There were people like Tony Brown, Don Lanier and many more full of creatives who were signing artists. That doesn't exist in the major label world anymore, that atmosphere of teams being made up of people who know and who love music. I think the independent world will make a difference in music," Womack said.
Nowadays, Womack isn't questioning her career. After seven records in the major label system, Womack went to more independent labels to make the kind of records she adored growing up. Her latest release, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone is a tour de force, mixing in multiple genres while bringing a bit of that Southern soul back to country. When we asked why she went about making the record in the way she did and what had her choose Houston's SugarHill as the studio she used, Womack said "I went back to Houston and I wanted to reflect my East Texas roots. I really just wanted to get to Texas, I wanted to add that "George Jones" soul to show that there's still soul in country music. As far as the major labels are concerned, there's no soul."
Asked if there have ever been times where she questioned her instincts she says, "well, there have been flashes of doubt. But because I've accomplished all I wanted to, this point in my career is a bonus. For so long I was waiving the traditional country music flag, but where I'm at, I'm more happy now."
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Reminiscent of the kind of tunes you'll hear in a Texas honky tonk bar, the songs from the new album should really resonate with the crowd here in Houston. With just a couple of dates left on this leg of the tour, we were curious what Womack has planned for her set here this week. "We're able to be heavy on the new material, cause' the audience has shifted. Last night I played two George Jones songs in my encore, and we'll play plenty of hard core country stuff with my hits sprinkled in," replies Womack.
Seeing how far Womack has come over the years, just a hard working woman from East Texas who made it as a country artist, we asked if there was anything she'd tell herself if she could go back in time. In the most honest way she replied, "oh gosh, what would I tell myself? I'd say, never doubt it, you're right, and George Jones is cool."
It certainly feels like Lee Ann Womack has come full circle and returned to who she was when she left Texas for Nashville. With a career that seems to keep going strong, she definitely feels like an artist who's found the perfect balance. You can stream The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone in all of the usual places, or purchase physical copies and bundles directly from ATO Records. Lee Ann Womack will bring her songs to life on Thursday April 19 at The Heights Theater. The all ages show will have a trio set from Texas' Vandoliers. Doors at 7 p.m.; tickets $28 to $75.