It is impossible to think of Lee Ann Womack without immediately recalling her 2000 hit “I Hope You Dance." In the late '90s and early 2000s, Womack dominated the mainstream country charts with a slew of commercially-friendly hits like “Ashes By Now” and “A Little Past Little Rock.” Later, she’d score a major pop-crossover success with syrupy, sentimental ballad “I Hope You Dance,” which would come to define her career as a country artist. Or at least that’s what everybody thought.
The Lee Ann Womack of today, and her sound, are decidedly different than they were 20 years ago. Now, the self-described East Texas girl is leaning hard into her classic country roots. In 2014, Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ earned critical praise and a slew of Grammy nominations, especially for its standout single “Chances Are,” written by The Woodlands’ own Hayes Carll. With that album, Womack transformed from a commercial country hitmaker into a bona fide queen of the new Americana sound.
“About eight years ago, I sort of semi-retired, and I had just come off of this long commercial country career and I was free to creatively do a lot of things that I had not been free to do to years,” Womack says. “The last record was the first step on that path, and this record is the next step. It doesn’t seem different to me, but it’s always interesting to hear how people receive it as they hear the music. I am getting to be a lot more creative now than I was in the first phase of my career.”
Over the past several months, Womack has been spending a lot of time cutting tracks at Houston’s SugarHill Studios, following in the footsteps of country legends like George Jones and Lyle Lovett. She’s working on an album, due out this fall, and finds a great deal of inspiration in the musical roots of East Texas. “I’m an East Texas girl, and when I’m here, I’m in a sort of dreaming, creative mode like no other place, I think probably because I spent my whole life there dreaming about and creating country music,” she says. “I’ve never recorded there until now. I’ve done a little bit in Austin, but I love Houston so much and it had such a rich, rich history of not only country music, but also blues music and what I consider to be real American roots music. I love the vibe there.”
Womack is still keeping most of the details of the new record close to her vest, but don’t expect for her to make a move that would land her back at the top of the country charts as they currently exist. “I had one foot out the door the whole time. I mean, my first song had Ricky Skaggs and his wife on it.” she says. “I always had this real-country stuff that I was trying to make work in the commercial world, but they don’t really like or want country music anymore. It wasn’t challenging for me to leave at all — I was literally running toward it.”
Over the years, Womack has made peace with the way that country radio has fundamentally shifted the kind of music that is successful in the genre. “It used to be frustrating. And it still is, I guess, but my expectations now are different than they used to be,” says Womack. “When I would put out a country song and it would die at No.15 instead of going to No. 1, the direct feedback from radio would be that it was too country. Yeah, that was frustrating as hell. But I was in the middle of a contract, I had made this commitment, and it was frustrating to stay there and keep pushing that rock back up the hill every day.”
Now, she’s more in her element than ever, both as an artist and a performer. After spending most of her career playing fairs, festivals, and giant arenas, the intimate vibe of a small listening room is where Womack feels most comfortable. “I don’t really like playing in rooms that were built for playing basketball or hockey. That’s not who I am,” she says. “What we do is not a circus. It’s music, and I love playing rooms that were built for playing music. Even when I play a bigger room and the band is all spread out and they want to take up the whole stage, I make everybody scoot in. I want to feel what’s going on with these musicians. I want them to look me in the eye, I want them surrounding me. Because you do play differently and you do feel differently. It’s definitely made a difference in how I perform.”
But as an artist who once had the backing of major Nashville labels and all the cash and access that those deals afford, Womack has had to get real creative in how she approaches this next phase of her career. “I certainly do not have the avenues available to me that I did when I was working with major labels. I don’t have the budgets, I don’t have the staff that I once had, those things were all wonderful,” says Womack. “I’m having to be creative not only on stage and in the studio, I’m having to be creative in a lot of ways that I’ve never had to be before. But I truly feel like I’m now, for the first time, really connecting with people. Really, I’m having more fun than I ever realized I could have.”
She does, however, have hope for the future of country music. A country music that respects its roots and sticks to that “three chords and the truth” formula that makes it so impactful. Much of that optimism is inspired by the up-and-coming women that she sees in the genre. “I see people like Kacey Musgraves, and I love that girl. She’s so creative and she loves real country music,” says Womack. “My daughter has a new record out and of course I want to see her succeed so well; she’s very different from Kacey, but she does real music and they’re both fighting the fight. I see it in both of these girls, in their careers every day. My heart goes out to them, but I want to embrace them and be there for them in any way that I can.”
As she might say, 20 years and two husbands later, Womack has a great deal of wisdom for the female artists who are trying to make it in Nashville today. That includes her own daughter, the aforementioned Aubrie Sellers, who released one of the most promising alt-country debuts of 2016. And, as Womack acknowledges, the road that Sellers and her contemporaries will have to walk in Nashville is decidedly different than the one that Womack navigated early in her career.
“I was a single mom when I got signed to my deal. I had to make a lot of decisions in the 'mom column' that went against my career,” she says. “Aubrie and Kacey don’t have to deal with that at this point, so it’s just different. The main thing that would tell either one of them, especially Aubrie who I talk to every day, I say that your musical instincts are not wrong, regardless of what someone else might tell you. Stick with what you’re doing. I know this from 20 years of experience.”
And if Womack’s last record was any indication, she’s doing a fine job of listening to her own advice. But despite all of these moves toward a more traditional sound, she’s still more than willing (maybe even more so than ever before) to please her fans from all phases of her career. When asked whether or not she’ll ever be able to take her smash hit “I Hope You Dance” out of her live set lists, Womack doesn’t really have a definitive answer.
“I don’t know, but I will tell you that it doesn’t bother me as much as it did a few years ago. I’ve seen the way that song impacts people,” Womack says. “It was a huge success commercially, but I also think there was a lot of honesty in that success. I came out of nowhere, nobody ever expected me to have a pop crossover song. I just think that song really resonated with people and they connected with it. When people tell me their stories and how it affected them, I know it was a very genuine and heartfelt song. We do it differently now; it’s not as melodramatic as it used to be. Whether or not I’m ever able to take it out of the set list, I don’t mind doing it.”
As far as the future is concerned more broadly, though, Womack has big plans to keep making her own music, but also to help young up-and-coming artists find success. “I hope to continue what I’m doing, get better and better at it, and then...who knows?,” she says. Alongside her husband and producer Frank Liddell, Womack is working with up-and-coming artists like Waylon Payne (who penned Womack’s hit “Solitary Thinkin’”) and Adam Wright, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and nephew of Alan Jackson.
“I’m very proud of these guys," she says. "I’d love to maybe tour some with these artists and get them out in public, get their records out, and sort of change the shape of what’s going on right now. We’ve gotten so far away from country music, so far away from real songs.”
And while she may not be able to single-handedly save country music from itself or the blight of mediocrity, nobody will ever be able to say that Lee Ann Womack didn’t do her damnedest to make things right. “I don’t know how to right the ship, but it’s important to listen to what young artists have to say,” she says. “I know there is an audience for that sort of thing. I don’t know how to do it just yet, but I’m trying to figure it out.”
Lee Ann Womack and special guest Waylon Payne perform Friday, March 31 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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