By Richard Skanse
In the fall of 2002, when Lee Ann Womack released an album called Something Worth Leaving Behind, much was made at the time — at least in country music circles — about the Jacksonville, Texas-born country singer’s dramatic makeover from suburban mom to sultry, sexy diva. It wasn’t just her come-hither pose on the album cover, either. In the wake of the career-making crossover success of the title track of her previous album, 2000’s I Hope You Dance, Womack seemed determined to prove she could continue to connect with an adult contemporary pop audience with the same effortless efficiency as Shania, Faith or even that other LeAnn. She wasn’t “selling out” or abandoning country, she insisted at the time (and still maintains) — just merely expanding her musical horizons. The result was a record that really wasn’t any less “country” than 99 percent of anything else heard on mainstream country radio these days, but it was a mighty long way from the sweet, Dolly Parton-worthy countrypolitan/honky-tonk of her self-titled 1997 debut and even the classy covers (Rodney Crowell, Don Williams, Buddy Miller) that gave I Hope You Dance a healthy dollop of purist credibility. Womack, unabashedly proud of the record, nonetheless predicted at the time that the reaction to her new direction would be 50/50 — a forecast that in retrospect seems optimistic (“Tanked” is the word she now candidly uses to describe the record’s reception, though to her credit, she still stands by it.) Though it was not without its memorable moments and was hardly a career killer, the lukewarm critical and fan reaction to Something Worth Leaving Behind suggested that the title summed the record up best.
If that all sounds a bit harsh for an intro, weigh it against this: Womack’s new album, There’s More Where That Came From, is an early front-runner for 2005’s best country album. At the very least, it will very likely be the most traditional sounding (and feeling and looking) pure country album to come out of Nashville — or Texas — all year long, even if George Strait keeps on his regular schedule and drops a new record come fall. Though Womack — like Strait and George Jones, a singer and song-interpreter of the highest order more than a songwriter — only had a hand in co-writing one track (a great one titled “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago”), every song on the album hearkens back to her childhood in the ‘70s, when she’d obsessively listen to her country deejay father’s record collection. The album’s lead single, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” never graced a ‘60s or ‘70s record by Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, but it damn sure could have and would have had it been around at the time. But none of those grand dames of county music could have nailed it any better than Womack, who delivers the classic cheater’s lament with a method actor’s conviction worthy of an Oscar. And once again, the album’s title really does say it all: From the opening title song through to the closing hidden track of Jack Clement’s classic “Just Someone I Used to Know,” there definitely is more where that came from.
Making a record as good as There’s More Where That Came From is reason enough to honor Womack as LoneStarMusic.com’s artist of the month. Ditto the fact that she’s also won a Grammy for the best Willie Nelson duet in years (“Mendocino County Line”), has recorded sterling versions of at least a couple of Bruce Robison songs, and has been known to hang with Texas/Red River music faves Cross Canadian Ragweed (she contributed harmony vocals to “Sick and Tired” on the band’s last album, Soul Gravy, and even sang with the Oklahoma boys at this year’s “Party in the Rockies” Texas music festival in Steamboat Springs, CO.) As for the fact that, according to her label peeps, Womack happens to be a fan of this here little Lone Star outpost on the World Wide Web (“I’ve been there just recently, in fact!” the singer reports proudly) … well, that was just icing, really.
I need to start out with a confession. During interviews for your last album, Something Worth Leaving Behind, you stressed that even though that was pretty much a pop-crossover album, you had no intention of leaving country music for good. In fact, you said your next album could end up being the most country-sounding thing you’d ever done. But honestly, I didn’t really believe you.
[Laughs] I’m sure a lot of people probably felt like you did!
Well, I stand corrected.
When you really are country, and you don’t just wear it like a piece of clothing or something, you really can’t get away from it. It just is who you are. And I’ll always do that kind of music. I mean, that is who I am. I don’t sing country music because I’m not capable of singing other kinds of music; I sing it because I think it’s the most beautiful kind of music there is. And that’ll always be my favorite and that will always be what I do most. But I’m also a music lover, and I’ll always try a lot of different things. You know, much like a Willie or something … I mean, he does all kinds of different stuff, but there’s no denying he’s country .
Knowing full well that a lot of people probably doubted that you’d ever make a record this traditional sounding after the last one, was there an element of “I’ll show them!” driving you in the studio?
Yeah. I guess a little bit. I think more than anything, it was, “I’ll show me.” I mean, I just love it, and we laughed out loud so many times and had such a good time in the studio doing this kind of stuff. I can always pull out my old records — my old Jones records, my old Buck Owens records, things like that, and everybody else who loves that kind of stuff can, too, but I think it’s fun for us to make music that’s like that now, and I think it’s fun for listeners to hear new music that’s like that now. So we had a real fun time making it, and I hope people can hear that.
A friend here at LoneStarMusic.com summed up the record perfectly after he heard it for the first time. He said, “All those people who’ve been complaining for years that they wished Nashville would make a record like they used to … now they have a chance to put their money where their mouth is.”
[Laughs ] That’s very good!
I mean, you even got the cover right. It just looks like a classic country record, right down to the track list on the front.
Thank goodness for Frank [her husband, Texas-born producer/publisher Frank Liddell]. I run everything by him, and I said, “We’re getting ready to do the art and packaging, and I don’t know what direction to give the label.” And he said, “Lee Ann, it needs to look like one of those records hanging on your wall in there.” In my office, I have framed album covers by Dottie West, Connie Smith, Tammy, Dolly, Loretta and Jessi Colter. He said, “You should be able to move those records apart and put yours right in the middle, and it should look just like one of those.”
The last time I interviewed you, for Texas Music magazine, you told me that when you did your first showcase in Nashville, you had twin fiddles in your band and you did “San Antonio Rose” and stuff like that, and you could tell that people were shocked at how “country” it was. Like you could tell that they hadn’t heard anything like that in a while. Considering that mainstream country still isn’t that country, did making this record seem in any way more daring to you than your last one, with all the crossover type songs?
That’s so funny, I’d forgotten about that. I did do that. People were sitting there, and you could almost see the big question mark over their heads, like they were thinking, “What the hell is she doing?” And to me, I had come out of Texas, and during that time was when I realized that a lot of people in Nashville, their idea of what country music was was not the same as mine. I came to town thinking that everybody had the same idea of what country music was that I did. And it took me about 11 years to get a record deal, and I just had to work around and come to terms with the fact that what I was doing was going to be different, and I just had to wait until somebody was ready to jump on the bandwagon. I don’t really look at it as being daring. I really look at it more as, I just had to be true to myself. And realize that it might not be a commercial success. And then again, if it is, that it could be huge.
Have you ever not been true to yourself? You’ve said before that, counter to what people might think, your label doesn’t tell you what to do or what to record. But have you ever sensed that you’ve strayed by your own volition, even if subconsciously? More to the point: does this record seem any more “Lee Ann Womack” to Lee Ann Womack than the last one did?
It feels a little more easier and a little more natural. However, I’m a musician. You name me one guitar player that doesn’t like all kinds of music. There’s no great guitarist that doesn’t sit down and listen to Chet Atkins and Eddie Van Halen, and all these other great players. And I’m like that way as a singer. I like to do different things. So it’s more the musician in me that makes me stretch out and try different things more than anything. But, like a lot of guitar players, I have one certain niche that’s my thing that I’m better at than the others.
It may be easy for you to sing these kinds of songs, but was it hard to find songs that had that classic sound you were looking for? Or are there still a lot out there being written that just aren’t being recorded?
I don’t know if there are a lot, but they do still write them like that. I mean, Hank Cochran, Dean Dillon, this new guy Chris Stapleton — they are writing them, and they’re not hard for me to get, because nobody else really cuts them.
What are your favorites on the record?
Not to pat myself on the back, but I really like “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago.” I like the way it came out. And “Stubborn,” when I heard the demo, hit me harder than any song I’d ever heard. It just … you know, basically the song says there’s a problem here, and now I realize the problem’s with me. And I just think that couldn’t have been easy to write. So that one is definitely one of my favorite things I’ve ever cut. And the single, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” was the anchor for the whole project. I heard that one and knew it was going to be my first single, and I built the whole record around it.
That song to me sounds the most vintage.
Yeah, I think so too.
Do you have a theory on why the subject of cheating has always lent itself to great country songs?
I just think that country writers and singers have never been afraid to address that subject. That’s probably why it seems like a country theme.
By all accounts, you seem very happily married. So do you approach a song like that like you’re stepping into an actor’s role?
Yes. And I think that’s a singer’s job. You know, to really interpret a lyric. There’s an art to it, and I think some people are really great at it, like Tammy Wynette and George Jones and Tony Bennett.
What was it about those old country records that you connected with growing up? Like how much was it you liking them because your father was a country deejay and they reminded you of him, and how much was it them just speaking to you?
I think a lot of it had to do with, you know, I was always a daddy’s girl. I was always wanting to please him, and I think he was pleased when he’d walk past my room and I was listening to those records. And even now, when I’m making a record, I’ll think, “My dad’s gonna love that!” So that was a big, big part of it.
Has he heard this one yet?
He has, and he loves it!
So I take it you were never the type who tried to find music to piss your parents off.
You know, maybe once or twice, if I got mad I might turn on MTV, which was just getting started when I was in high school. So maybe a couple of times, but not very often.
Does your father have really traditional country tastes, or is he pretty open minded?
It’s funny, because after I did Something Worth Leaving Behind and I started thinking about making another record, my dad knew good and well that I had his copy of Ray Price’s Greatest Hits. But all of a sudden in the mail one day I get another copy of it from him. And I swear to you, I think he was saying, “Hey, remember this?” [Laughs] Knowing full well that I had it already. So I think he wants me to do what he thinks I’m best at. And honestly, too, that’s just his favorite kind of music. So I don’t know that I would say that he’s that open-minded, at least when it comes to me.
When the last record came out, you said you didn’t care so much about how critics responded to your music anymore, as long as you enjoyed making it. You said you expected the reaction to Something Worth Leaving Behind to be roughly half good, half bad. But that said, after the fact, did the less favorable half end up stinging any more than you said you’d let it?
Yeah. Not so much from critics, but more from the consumers. You know, you want everything you do, obviously, to be a success critically and commercially. But what you find out as you go along is that everything won’t. And I hate to see artists who are real safe. I love to see artists swing for the fences sometimes. And when you do that, you’re going to miss in a big way sometimes. I don’t know, but I just like that. I think it’s a little more creative than being real safe. And that’s really where I see myself.
As radical as a record like There’s More Where That Came From may sound to people accustomed to today’s mainstream country radio, did you ever think, “This is almost too easy for me”? Maybe so easy that it felt a little too safe for you, after going out on a pop limb the last time around?
It was easy for me, but I certainly don’t think it was safe. I was pretty nervous about turning it in to the label, because I thought they’d look at me like, “What the hell do you expect us to do with this?” It’s not really a real radio-friendly sounding record. So I would say it was easy for me to do, but I never, ever thought of it as being safe.
What’s changed in your life in the last three years? Have there been any moves or epiphanies that put you in a different place?
Well, definitely … I don’t know about an epiphany, but over the last three years there’s been a big gradual change in me. I went through a lot, having a record that was hugely successful [I Hope You Dance], having a record that tanked [Something Worth …], and you know, you can’t go through that kind of stuff and not mature a little bit. And ironically, it was just great for me, because it made me think about the things in life that are really important. And that was probably the best learning experience, professionally speaking, of my life, my career.
In contrast to your last album, the reaction to the new record seems overwhelming positive so far. Have you found that to be really reassuring, or had you reached that level of reassurance in yourself before any of the reviews?
I really had. Good or bad, luckily it’s easy for me to go, “Well, whatever.” Because I had already done everything that I wanted to do: I had wanted to tour with George Strait, I had wanted to be CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, I’d wanted to have platinum records and No. 1 records, and I had done all of that. I had money in the bank. So it was easy for me to say, “Whatever happens, happens.” That’s a luxury that I have now. And I guess that’s why I wasn’t afraid to go cut a bunch of cheatin’ songs and drinkin’ songs and all that kind of stuff. And it’s a comfortable place for me.
The title of There’s More Where That Came From begs the question … will you continue in this direction? Or do you think you’ll go back and pick up where the last record left off?
I don’t have any idea what I’ll do next. This year I’ll be figuring that out, and something will just come to me, just like it did with this record. I was at home, not doing anything, and the label had changed hands several times, so I wasn’t sure what was going on down there and didn’t know what direction I was going to go. The next thing I know, Frank brings “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” home, and it was almost like the song was saying, “This is the way you need to go.” So I’ll just wait for inspiration to decide what I’ll do next. I don’t know. But like I said before, I love music, and whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll have a good time doing it.
Two years ago, you said you really wanted to do a Western swing album.
Yes! And at some point, definitely, I will do that. I really would like to make a modern, technically speaking, a modern swing record.
What did you like most about Bob Wills? I know your dad was a huge fan, but what did you love about that kind of music?
I think as a kid, I thought those records were funny. I think that’s what attracted me to them, what made me listen to them over and over again. You know, because he would talk over the tracks, “Shoot low, Sheriff, I think she’s riding a Shetland!” All that kind of stuff I thought was really funny. But because I listened to it so much, it just became a part of the music that I loved, and it’s nostalgic to me. I learned to appreciate it later on. Plus, when you’re playing it, it’s just fun. The musicians have a really good time playing it, and it just feels good when it swings good.
In January, you went to the “Party in the Rockies” Texas music festival. I hear you even got up on stage and sang with Cross Canadian Ragweed. That probably surprised a lot of folks there.
We had a blast. Sometimes when I do things like that, I’m a little concerned that maybe people won’t be too fired up because they’ll think, you know, “She’s too commercial to fit in here,” or something like that. But I just love that music scene so much, and I enjoy really being around those artists and watching them even more than I do performing, because they are a whole group of people that do it because they love music. And for the past 10 years I’ve been in a real commercial setting where people are all about numbers, they’re all about that bottom line. So it’s nice to step out of that and hang out with a bunch of people who play music just because they love it, as you can imagine.
Do you follow a lot of those artists? Do you know the scene pretty well?
I’ve recently started, and I’m learning!
Do you ever have fantasies of leaving Nashville and running away to the Texas Hill Country to play dancehalls every week?
Sure! And I see that with a lot of people in Nashville, people who have discovered that scene. So I do, once in a while. But you know, I’ve kind of set course here [in Nashville] years ago, and I’m pretty much a very determined person — I made a mental checklist of all the things I wanted to accomplish, and I was going to make sure those things happened, just for my own satisfaction more than anything.
So what’s left on that list? After the awards and commercial success?
The only thing that was left on it was I always said I wanted to do a duet with George Strait, and knock on wood, because sometimes things don’t end up happening, but I wrote a song with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon, and George cut it last week. I haven’t put my part on it yet, but hopefully I can in the next week or so. And then I guess I can retire! [Laughs]
What’s the song called?
Sounds like a pretty fortuitous title.
Yeah! I hope so!