By Richard Skanse
(LSM Oct/Nov 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 5)
Lee Ann Womack won’t name names, let alone pinpoint the scene of the crime. But oh, the true colors of the country music industry she’s seen …
“Well, without singling out a single organization or event or anything, which I don’t want to do …” she teases over breakfast at downtown Austin’s Stephen F. Austin Hotel, tiptoeing around the “tell me your best industry horror story” question as delicately as she’s been picking at her plate of Eggs Florentine, “but I have found myself in a lot of situations. Very early on I recognized that, ‘Oh … these people are not all about music. That’s not what this is about.’”
She smiles, bemused by the wide-eyed naiveté of youth. She’s older and wiser now, but back then that was a hard epiphany to come by for an East Texas girl who grew up listening to her DJ daddy spin classic country records on the radio in Jacksonville, obsessively trying to figure out how to sing harmony over her favorites from the cocoon of her bedroom. All she ever wanted to be when she grew up was a country music singer, and there she was, living her dream in Technicolor but finding herself less and less enchanted the closer she got to the big machine behind the gilded curtain.
She stuck it out just the same, though, learning to adapt and dance the major-label dance for 15 years that, all things considered, yielded a pretty good return. Her breathtakingly pure, expressive soprano graced the charts singing everything from Patsy Cline-worthy honky-tonk laments (her 1997 debut, “Never Again, Again”) to sweeping crossover pop (2000’s “I Hope You Dance,” which she was invited to sing at both a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the funeral of Maya Angelou.) She also won enough awards to fill a bookcase, including a Grammy for singing a song with Willie Nelson (2002’s “Mendocino County Line”) and a CMA Album of the Year trophy for her classic-country throwback collection, 2005’s sterling There’s More Where That Came From. But there were also compromises: artistic concessions made to keep her label’s promotion and accounting departments happy and to remain commercially viable in a mainstream format veering ever farther afield from the kind of songs she could sing from the heart. Somewhere along the way, Womack started to dream a different sort of dream.
“You know, I was with that label for a long time and had some great relationships there,” she says of her seven-album run as part of the MCA Nashville family. “But I was trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people, trying to give everybody what they needed while also trying to be true to myself. And it was hard to balance all that stuff. But the whole time, I would look at Buddy and Julie Miller and Jim Lauderdale and Ricky Skaggs and all these people whose music I loved so much, and I would think, ‘One day, I’m going to be in a situation where I can make music with and tour with those people, and that will be my community.’
“It was something that I aspired to,” she continues. “I just kept telling myself, ‘One day, you’ll be able to run in the circles you want to run in and only make the music you really love.’ And I just lived for that.”
There’s a reason why Womack speaks of this aspiration in the past tense — and it’s not because she had a change of heart. It’s because that “one day” she used to live looking forward to is today, right now. The title of her new album, released Sept. 23 on Sugar Hill Records, pretty much says it all: The Way I’m Livin’.
Don’t call this Womack record a “return to form,” a la the widely acclaimed There’s More Where That Came From, her brilliant recovery from the style-over- substance stumble of 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind. And don’t call it a “comeback,” despite it being her first new album since 2008’s Grammy-nominated Call Me Crazy. Instead, think of it as a brand new beginning, wherein one of the biggest country stars of the last decade-and-a-half jumps out of the mainstream to run away and join the Americana circus.
“This is starting over for me, definitely,” says Womack, 16 years after winning an Academy of Country Music Award for Top New Female Vocalist. But you’d be hard- pressed to find a new artist half her age brimming with half as much excitement about the road ahead.
“I have a chance now to do some things differently than I’ve done in the past,” she enthuses, “and I fully intend to do that.”
* * *
Like Rodney Crowell’s career- reviving Sugar Hill release The Houston Kid 13 years before it, Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ sounds very much like the kind of album you’d expect a former major-label country artist to make for their debut on a more roots-centric indie label. But just as the case was with Crowell’s record, Womack’s was already in the can by the time Sugar Hill picked it up. What’s more, she and her producer/husband, Frank Liddell, made it together while she was still signed to MCA — and at the behest of none other than the head of the label at the time.
“We actually started this record a couple of years ago,” says Womack. “What happened was, Luke Lewis sent me and Frank into the studio saying, ‘Y’all go make whatever record you want to make.’ Because Luke’s a real music guy, and I think he just wanted to see what would happen! Like, ‘What would Lee Ann and Frank do if they could do whatever they wanted?’”
Despite her success over the years at MCA (not to mention her husband’s track record producing hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert and the Eli Young Band), this was not a case of a major-label boss betting on a sure thing. For all their critical acclaim and awards show fanfare, There’s More Where That Came From and Call Me Crazy yielded only one Top 10 hit between the two of them (the former’s “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.”) The magnanimity of Lewis’ offer was not lost on Womack.
“Up until that point, I had been trying to be as true to myself as I could musically and fit into the commercial Nashville world,” she says. “And the producers that I had were producers who, when they turned music into the label, they need to prove that they can make a commercial record. So you get into that machine and everybody’s trying to fit in or make me fit in, you know? And so when Luke said, ‘I want you and Frank to forget about all that and just go make the record you want to make,’ that just completely opened up the doors. And Frank’s not afraid, either — Frank doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove to anybody in the commercial music world or any other … he really only thinks about ‘what’s the best treatment for this song.’ All of that really freed me up.”
Although they’d been married since 1999 — and known each other from the start of Womack’s career, given that Liddell was her A&R rep at Decca (“She hated me,” Liddell says today. “I think she just thought I was some college guy from the University of Texas, which always bugs people from East Texas, but everything I did bugged the hell out of her — until one day I guess it didn’t.”) — this was actually the first time that the couple worked on a whole album together.
“I just don’t think the timing was ever right before this,” says Womack. “And there may have been a little bit of fear about working together and also being married, but after all this time, we know what our thing is. And it turned out to be really easy. Frank and I have never built a house together, and I won’t ever build a house with him [laughs], but we’re so in sync musically that there was not even a smidge of a problem at all.”
Finding the right songs for the project was no problem for them, either. In addition to his A-list production gigs, Liddell also runs his own publishing company, Carnival Music, whose roster over the years has featured such writers as Bruce Robison, Adam Hood, Gretchen Peters, and Mando Saenz. Between that and their shared affinity for other performing songwriters of the Americana persuasion, the couple had been stockpiling songs on their “one day” wish- list for years, going all the way back to their earliest days of working together.
“Even when she ‘hated’ me back when I was just the A&R guy at Decca, I could still bring her songs and know that she would really listen to them,” Liddell recalls. “I mean, she was great at it — she was the best listener. She was the one artist who, when you played her a song, it was never about ‘how will this will take me somewhere in my career.’ It was just about, I either love it or not. Some of these songs, like [Chris Knight’s] ‘Send It On Down,’ we’ve had that one around for 12 or 13 years, waiting to do it. And [Julie Miller’s] ‘Don’t Listen to the Wind’ is one that she has really loved since like 1997 — I can’t remember when I first played it for her. So when Luke said go in and make this record, I think right then and there we looked at each other and were like, ‘OK, we’ve got lots of songs lying around …. How many times have we sat there and gone, ‘We’ve got to cut this — that song’s badass’?”
In addition to the those Knight and Miller tunes, their other hand-picked songs on the record include the title track (by Carnival writer and Alan Jackson nephew Adam Wright), Mindy Smith’s “All His Saints,” Adam Hood’s “Same Kind of Different,” Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With the Devil,” Mando Saenz’s “When I Come Around,” Brett Cobb’s “Fly,” and a pair by Bruce Robison (“Nightwind” and “Not Forgotten You,” the latter best known from Robison’s wife Kelly Willis’ own Americana coming-out party, 1999’s What I Deserve.) Womack also brought “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore,” an old Kenny Price-penned Roger Miller cut, to the table, while the cover of Neil Young’s Harvest classic “Out On the Weekend” is a nod to the early days of their romantic relationship. Womack had never actually heard Harvest before Liddell played it one night on a road trip, but she took note of his fondness for the album and surprised him by performing the opening track at a concert performance later on.
In the end, only one song on The Way I’m Livin’ came to the table via a third party recommendation: Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are” — a tune that the Texas songwriter originally wrote on spec for the movie Country Strong and later recorded on his 2011 Lost Highway album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories). It was Luke Lewis himself who presented the song to Womack for consideration, though according to Liddell, Lewis didn’t even know they’d recorded it until after he heard the finished album. But Womack was sold on it from the get-go.
“I was just floored by it,” she raves of the song, which wouldn’t have been out of place at all on There’s More Where That Came From. “I didn’t even know people still wrote songs like this! I grew up listening to Billy Sherrill’s Tammy Wynette and George Jones records, and I love the way those songs are written, how they circle back to the hook and are just so clever. For a label head this day and age to bring an artist a song like this is just rare.”
Although Womack herself didn’t write any of the songs on the album, she notes with pride that every one of them was written “to be performed,” initially by the writers themselves, rather than as songs just to be pitched on Music Row.
“A lot of things that I want to cut nobody else will cut,” she says, marveling at how a song like Knight’s “Send It On Down” could go untouched for so many years by anyone but Knight himself. “When you listen to commercial country radio these days, you just don’t hear anything like that at all. If we’re being honest, you just don’t hear that many real, crafted songs: you hear a lot of stuff that sounds like it was just made up, not written. I think we’ve gotten away from that in Nashville, which is a shame because there’s still a fantastic writing community there.”
Having the freedom to pick and choose material from some of their favorite songwriters was only part of the luxury of getting to make an album on their own terms, though. Womack and Liddell were determined to make a record that captured the intimacy of a live performance rather than the usual bells and whistles of glossy mainstream production. It started with Liddell asking Womack what she didn’t want her record to sound like.
“I told him it just seems like with all that I hear going on in Nashville right now, everything’s so bombastic: everything’s more, more, faster, faster, louder, louder,” she says. “And that’s not who I am. I told him I wanted to make sure that we didn’t get caught up in that game, and that I just wanted it to be as if the listener was sitting in a room and hearing the real musicians the way they really sound.” And she wanted to be in that room, too, singing with the musicians with her vocals right in the middle of the mix rather than dropped on top of a “bunch of instrumentation” after the fact. Consequently, most of her vocals on the record were tracked live with the band.
Liddell points out that although that’s not the way most records usually get made in Nashville, it wasn’t long before it became apparent to all involved that it was the only way to make this one. He recalls one moment when his wife was in the lounge tending to other business while the band was fussing with an arrangement, trying to run a song down. It was drummer Matt Chamberlain who noted, “There’s no sense in doing this without her being in here, too.”
“The interesting thing about this record is, rather than having a band over here doing their thing and then doing the vocal over there, it was like having a four-to-seven piece band, depending on the song, with her vocal as just another instrument,” Liddell says. “And that’s something that I had never seen before that I thought was really special.”
There was something else he’d never really seen before that struck him as pretty special, too.
“As you might have noticed, Lee Ann’s not very tall,” he says with a smile (she stands 5’ 1”.) “And we were in the studio, talking about ‘what have you missed hearing on your other records that you want to hear on this one,’ and she was sitting in this chair with her feet not touching the ground and just swinging, like she was a 4-year-old girl getting ready to get ice cream. And it’s funny because she’s always been my wife and she’s this really intense person, and for the first time, I just saw this little girl in her as she was talking about what she’s always wanted to do.”
* * *
In early 2012, Luke Lewis, the man who had given Womack and Liddell carte blanche to make their record, stepped down from his position as the head of Universal Nashville. The news didn’t quite hit Womack from out of the blue, given that Lewis had asked her to sit tight with her finished record for nearly a year, lest it end up coming out right when he was walking out the door and thus wind up orphaned without a champion in its corner. After Lewis’ departure, his successor, Mike Dungan, asked Womack if she would mind sitting on the album just a little bit longer while the company sorted out its release calendar. When her turn to meet with him again finally came up several months later, Dungan explained to her that Lost Highway, Universal’s Americana imprint, was gone, and asked if she’d consider going back into the studio to cut some additional tracks “for radio.” She respectfully declined.
“I just wasn’t interested in changing it,” she says today. “Not in that classic stubborn ‘I’m going to do things my way, I’m mad at them’ way — it wasn’t anything like that. It was just that I’ve been in this business long enough and I just wasn’t interested in what was going on.” She stood her ground, but the scene played out nothing at all like the contentious showdown between Connie Britton’s fictional country star Rayna Jaymes and the ruthless CEO of “Edgehill Republic” on TV’s Nashville. Given that her contract with MCA had actually been up before she even started making The Way I’m Livin’, she was free to go, and Dungan, as a show of appreciation for her patience, even let her walk with her masters.
For the better part of the next two years, Womack spent some much needed time away from the business of being a country music star in order to reconnect with her family and kids and friends, “just being normal.” But she also kept listening to and writing new songs, because, she says, “there’s a lot of music at our house, all the time, and it never stops.” And by the time Sugar Hill came a courtin’, she was charged and ready to begin the next chapter of her career.
“Sugar Hill kept coming back, going, ‘We want this record — we heard a copy of it and we want to put it out,’” she says. “And you know, I was thrilled. Their whole approach to the music business is ‘we do music that matters.’ It’s roots music, and I love their catalog. So many of their records that they’ve put out over the years have just been brilliant. So I thought it would be nice to do some business with them.”
The Womack record Sugar Hill got fits right in with that roots music catalog. But truth be told, even if it had ended up being released by her last label as-is, chances are that songs like “Chances Are” and “Same Kind of Different” wouldn’t have thrown any fan who loved the classic ’70s-country feel of There’s More Where That Came From or even much of Call Me Crazy for too much of a loop. And when pressed on the matter, Womack concedes that, given the right kind of push — even from an indie label — The Way I’m Livin’ is a record that conceivably could still get played on country radio.
“But, is that a game I’m interested in playing?” she asks with a smile. “Not really.” Instead, she’d rather take these songs, and whatever ones she records or writes next, and sing them “in rooms that were built to play music, not basketball.” She’s more interested in seeking and playing in the company of Buddy Millers and Jim Lauderdales and John Hiatts — as she did in January as part of the Cayamo Music Cruise and in September at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville — than she is in walking awards show red carpets. And if the folks at MusicFest in Steamboat, Colo., should ever ask her back again, or some scrappy Texas or Red Dirt act like Cody Canada and the Departed wants to hook up for a studio session or roadhouse gig somewhere down the road, count her in. Womack joined Canada’s last band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, onstage as a special guest when they played their final show together at Joe’s Bar in Chicago in September 2010.
“I first met those guys in Corpus Christi a few years ago,” she recalls. “I was playing a show there and I can’t remember if they were playing somewhere else in town or if it was a festival or something and we were on the same bill, but a mutual friend of ours said, ‘My buddies are going to come over,’ and I just said, ‘OK.’ And when they walked in, they didn’t look like any other country stars out of my friends or anything. In fact, my daughter said, ‘Are those pirates?’”
She laughs at this, along with the suggestion that her hanging with the Ragweed set sounds rather like a straight- laced good girl slumming with the stoners out at the back of the school parking lot. “I was just totally enamored with them,” she admits, “because there was a lot of faux stuff in my world, and they were just real, you know? And then they introduced me to Wade Bowen and Stoney LaRue, and it was just a whole new world of music lovers that I got to hang out with and have fun with.”
It is, without question, a very different world from the one she first made her name in. It’s rather different, too, from the world of artists like Buddy and Julie Miller and Rodney Crowell that she marveled at from the fringes for years, cutting their songs every chance she could while still keeping up appearances as a contemporary country star. And it’s very different from the bluegrass world, which she’s been a fan of and mingled with going all the way back to her college days in Levelland. But the way Lee Ann Womack’s livin’ these days, all of those worlds and even the best bits of her old one are all hers to roam freely now. And whatever or however many circles she chooses to run in, chances are she’s gonna fit right in and do just fine.
“When I first started out, I remember doing an interview where I said that I hoped that I could work toward being a Willie Nelson,” she says. “Willie fits everywhere. He’s not this, he’s not that — he’s Willie. And that’s still what I want to be, too.”