IF COUNTRY STAR Lee Ann Womack has one strike against her, it’s that she’s unwilling to play ball. Indeed, the Jacksonville native knows she annoys executives at her Nashville-based label, Decca, who tell her to “work the room” at industry events. Her task might be as simple as schmoozing the brass at a Country Music Association function so that they’ll invite her to sing at their glitzy awards show, but the 32-year-old heads for a corner and counts the minutes till she can leave. “Hopefully they’ll ask me to be on their show because I’ve got a great song,” Womack says. “I’m not a butt-kisser. I’m not gonna go hug everybody and say, ‘Oh, you look great.’ To me, that’s not real. I am not gonna do it. I don’t know that I’ll ever want to do it.”
Fortunately, her songs are great, so she gets on anyway: She was named favorite new country artist at the American Music Awards and top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music earlier this year, and she has been nominated for two 1998 Country Music Association awards, including female vocalist of the year. Her 1997 debut, Lee Ann Womack, has sold more than 500,000 copies, garnered rave reviews— Entertainment Weekly said her songs “may just be good enough to turn Nashville’s commercial tide”—and won the hearts of country legends. Loretta Lynn began writing and recording demos for Womack after hearing her single “Never Again, Again.” Garth Brooks announced that after selling 68 million records, he is now “in search of the innocence on Lee Ann Womack’s face.” Buck Owens gave her one of his vintage red, white, and blue guitars and bought fifty of her CDs to give to friends and fans—and he may soon be buying in bulk again, since Womack’s hotly anticipated follow-up disc, Some Things I Know, hit stores on September 22.
In a decade of new country, Womack strikes this chord with an age-old voice: a powerful, cake-sweet soprano that sings like it talks, in small-town cain’t’s and git’s. And if she works the sob in a line, she shows restraint where Reba McEntire would do a triple-gainer. Today’s country touts self-esteem, but Womack is lily-livered: The heroines of her songs let their philandering men come home, knowing all the while that they’ll leave again. “I cain’t help myself,” she sniffs. Whether a cad or a darling, he has a power over her; she likes his “kissin’.” She sings about blue-collar types: the trucker’s wife, the jilted waitress who scrapes up her dignity at a restaurant where “tips are good.” “I’d been wanting to hear that since Loretta Lynn,” says Buck Owens. “The honesty, the sincerity—I believe the Womack girl.” In an era of glib cowgirling, you detect in her voice the same plainspokenness—the same realness—that made Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn.
In fact, she has many of the same innards. Like Tammy and Loretta, she married and had a child before ever cutting a record. Ex-husband Jason Sellers, whose own debut CD flopped in 1997, made his name in Nashville before Womack did. As the bass player and road manager for Ricky Skaggs, Sellers performed around the world while Womack took a job at a Nashville day care center to be with their daughter, Aubrie Lee, now eight, but they divorced in 1996. Womack drops a clue about the split in the press kit from her first album, calling a you-don’t-love-me-anymore number “a true story,” but beyond that she keeps quiet about the breakup. “Every little girl should be able to look at her daddy as a hero,” she says, “and I don’t want to rob Aubrie of that.” Her best friend, however, isn’t so delicate. “He really is just a jerk,” says Patti Murray, adding that Womack has a lousy track record with men: “I don’t think she chooses the right people for her. She just looks for people who are musically talented.”
That could explain the hard hand she takes with her band members. Upon hiring them, she laid down two rules. “If I catch you runnin’ around on your wife, I will call her. I will tell her. I will fire you,” she told them. “I will not allow you to do that to her or your children.” (The other rule: no illegal drugs. “I will not have anybody sayin’ that my child is runnin’ up and down the country with a bunch of dope smokers.”) And yet when the conversation turns to cheating songs, Womack’s cornflower eyes light up. “I get fired up listening to Conway Twitty sing, ‘I’m lying here with Linda on my mind,’” she enthuses. “I despise cheatin’, but boy do I like to hear it on the song. It makes me happy.”
On the one hand, Womack seems like a modern woman. She refused to take Sellers’ name when they married, even though her parents thought she should. “Does it make sense that the woman should always give up her last name?” she asks. “It doesn’t to me.” The self-described “captain of the ship,” she tells her wardrobe person what she will and won’t wear, and she snoops around for songs—not leaving that task to someone at her label, as many singers do. “I’m the only one who knows what kind of career I want,” she explains. Yet she also plays traditional roles: making the drapes in her living room, homeschooling Aubrie, baking bread. “She’s just a real good little housekeeper,” says her mother, Ann Womack. Lee Ann herself says she’s “very into” family and would like “the opportunity to be a great wife to someone.”
Authenticity is another of her traits. She says she would never go to a Music Row restaurant wearing sweats: “It’s pretty vain, I guess.” And then there’s the drawl, which critics love most. Ask her if she’s exaggerating her East Texas twang when she says “cain’t,” and she replies, “Huh-uh, no.” So she’s not putting on? “Now, my sister has done a real