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I Am Womack, Hear Me Roar

One of country music’s biggest stars walks away from the Nashville machine to sing the kind of songs she heard growing up in East Texas.

By October 2014Comments

Photograph by Leann Mueller

Her seated posture is perfect. Her hands are tightly clasped and laid squarely in her lap. Then, singing from her diaphragm—the way the great ones do—Lee Ann Womack reminds us that her voice is just as disciplined. Immediately, Womack’s suite at Austin’s tony Hotel Saint Cecilia, designed as a tribute to the decadence of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. period, is transformed into a house of worship. When she sings “Send It On Down,” a song about the intersection of God and the bottle, and gets to the hook—“Jesus, can you save me from going crazy?”—the dozen of us in attendance look on reverentially. There are no camera phones, no movement. Just silence. She’s so inside the song—each line struck with a precise fusion of righteousness and weariness—that even before her brief, four-song set is over, we’re left with an indelible takeaway: if all you know about Lee Ann Womack is the schmaltzy megahit “I Hope You Dance,” then you probably don’t understand her at all.

This modest get-together held for the benefit of a handful of journalists may seem an odd choice for a high-wattage star who has won a Grammy, six Country Music Association awards, and five Academy of Country Music awards and sold more than six million records. For years the Jacksonville native traveled with the sort of entourage modern country stars believe they’re supposed to travel with. Label representatives. An assistant. Publicists. Hair and makeup people. Press and documentary-video crews. Once, the story goes, when she misplaced her driver’s license, her publicist persuaded TSA personnel to let her board a plane by matching her face to an album cover.

For this brief promotional trip, though, Womack was downright giddy about doing things the rest of us do because we have to: booking her own flight from Nashville, renting a car on her own, and making her own hotel reservation. “It’s like being seventeen and getting your first car,” says Womack, over coffee at Jo’s, a casual spot in the shadow of one of downtown Austin’s gleaming new skyscrapers, the day before her performance. “And then you take your first road trip and there’s that exhilarating feeling of ‘I’m out here, by myself. I’m responsible.’ This feels normal. And exciting.”

It’s not lost on Lee Ann Womack that you probably just rolled your eyes a little. But she isn’t trying to sell her current situation as a woe-is-me story. In fact, she corrects her friends when they use words like “bold” or “brave” to describe her departure from the Nashville hit-making machine and her embrace of the world of independent labels and self-promotion. You don’t deserve a pat on the back for being yourself, says the 48-year-old, especially when it took so long to do it. But to understand why her new album, The Way I’m Livin’, released on the small but respected bluegrass and Americana label Sugar Hill Records, feels like freedom, you have to know where’s she been. 

“When I was little, I listened almost exclusively to men—George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard—singers who sing in their true voice, so when they talk to you or sing to you, it’s the same,” says Womack, whose father deejayed at a string of East Texas country radio stations when she was growing up. “It’s not like ‘Now I’m going to perform!’ Merle picks up his guitar and it’s like he’s talking to you, only really pretty. I’d like to think I’m one of those singers, singing in my true voice.”

After graduating from Jacksonville High School, in 1984, Womack spent a year at South Plains College, in Levelland (“It was basically a bunch of hippies that wanted to play music; it was the best thing I ever did for myself”), before decamping to Nashville, where she interned for a while in MCA’s A&R department. In 1990 she married Ricky Skaggs’s bassist, Jason Sellers, and had a daughter, Aubrey. Womack took a job at a day-care center to make ends meet. “I didn’t just think I would be a country singer,” she says. “I knew it, almost like I’d already seen the movie. But when I was pregnant with Aubrey, I thought I might have blown it. I knew it was going to be tough to compete with a kid at home.”

Despite her reservations, Womack never quite gave up; she spent the little free time she had writing songs and showcasing in tiny Nashville clubs. And in 1996, 31 years old and heading for divorce, she signed a seven-album deal with MCA’s Decca Records. “It was the Nashville fairy tale, if your fairy tale involves a ten-year wait, a marriage, a child, and a divorce,” she says.  

As a little girl, Womack dreamed of sitting next to Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty at award shows. Instead, by the time she got there, Shania Twain and Toby Keith were her peers. And while there are some traditional country songs in her catalog, there are just as many examples of her swinging for the fences with a glossy, overproduced pop ballad. “I’m guilty of playing the game,” she admits. But she argues that there’s a difference between selling out and doing the job you were hired to do.

“I was raised to honor responsibilities,” says Womack. “I signed a contract to make commercial music that Decca could sell. I wanted to do the best job of it I could do for them. At every turn, I tried to give them as much as I could without giving away too much of myself. But my husband [producer Frank Liddell, whom she married in 1999] says it’s like being a bar of soap: they’re just going to keep going and going till there’s nothing left.”

Womack’s traditional-leaning 1997 debut earned her a Top New Female Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music. The blood was in the water. “Once they sell that many records on you,” she says, “they want to do it again.”

But the business, she noticed, started getting less and less country. “Eventually they’d let me cut some of the kinds of songs I like, but they wouldn’t put them out as singles,” she says. “The whole time I was saying, ‘One day. One day. One day it’s gonna be driven by the music, not by the marketing and radio departments.’ But it was never ugly. I was trying to do my best, and they were trying to do theirs.”

Three records in, “I Hope You Dance” changed everything—except the pressure to produce more hits. It topped the country chart and helped sell three million copies of the album of the same name. Womack sang what would go on to become a wedding standard at the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize concert and the 2004 Republican National Convention. “The little girl who wanted to be a country star got to be a country star,” she says, although it wasn’t quite what she imagined.

“You think being rich and famous is going to make you happy,” says Womack. “And it didn’t. It can be part of what makes you happy. I wanted to sing; that’s what makes me happy. But after ‘I Hope You Dance,’ I spent very little time singing. A lot of time talking. A lot of time smiling. And a lot of time pursuing things for other people’s agendas. These aren’t things you picture when you’re a little girl.”

Instead of using her newfound clout to make the records she’d always hoped to, Womack folded under the pressure to keep crossing over with 2002’s slick Something Worth Leaving Behind. The rootsier There’s More Where That Came From (2005) was a step in the right direction, but a couple of years after 2008’s Call Me Crazy—the last record she officially owed Decca—things got interesting. In 2010, during his tenure as chairman and CEO of Decca’s parent company, Universal Music Group Nashville, the well-regarded label veteran Luke Lewis gave Womack carte blanche to make the record she’d always wanted to make, no strings attached. With Liddell co-producing, she cut The Way I’m Livin’ in two 3-day sessions. 

Before Lewis could figure out the specifics of its release, Universal merged with Capitol/EMI, and he was replaced by longtime Capitol Nashville chief Mike Dungan. Almost immediately, Universal shifted focus to an even more hit-driven approach and asked Womack if she’d consider going back to cut a radio single or two to include on the record. She thought about it and declined. And in a move that was, by all accounts, a rarity for the music industry—and a sign of respect for someone who always pleasantly honored her end of a deal—Dungan arranged for Womack to leave the label with the unreleased album. She owned the masters, free and clear.

Then, she says, time got away from her. What she imagined as a three-year gap between record releases became six. She played the occasional gig but mostly raised her kids (she has a second daughter, Anna, with Liddell) while she considered and, again, declined offers from major Nashville labels that thought they could do something with The Way I’m Livin’. Ultimately, she went with the independent Sugar Hill, whose artist-friendly ethos appealed to her sensibilities.

For all those complications, The Way I’m Livin’ doesn’t sound terribly threatening. In fact, much of it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Miranda Lambert or Kacey Musgraves record. And there’s a reason for that: Liddell co-produced all five of Lambert’s albums. But Womack isn’t jumping on some country-grrrl bandwagon. The raw, unadorned songs she and Liddell chose for the record feature characters so rough-hewn and sad that even Musgraves might shy away from them. Womack describes the tracks—one written by Austin’s Hayes Carll and two by Austin’s Bruce Robison—as “songs that tear holes in life.” The characters who populate the album question their faith, their identity, and, just as often, whether or not to ask the bartender to pour one more. 

“I don’t look for dark songs,” she says. “But I’m drawn to them. I think it’s the way I was raised. There was a lot of church—services every Sunday, youth group on Wednesdays. And football games on Friday nights. We ate at the same table every night. But later, I also spent a lot of time in bars, a lot of drinking for entertainment. And I saw a lot of folks using happiness as a mask. When somebody comes through the door acting like they have the world on a string, the first thing I think is, ‘I bet she’s miserable.’ ”

Womack doesn’t seem the least bit miserable about the fact that her days as a country radio star are likely behind her. “I’d probably look foolish trying to play that game,” she says. One of the best outcomes she could hope for is to learn the answer to this question: What if the most honest album of your career reached the smallest audience of your career? Womack says she’s excited to shift from playing hockey rinks and the rotating stages at rodeos to the theater circuit, where people she loves, like Lyle Lovett and Patty Griffin, play to audiences that come to hear the music. She’s got a few shows scheduled, but she’s willing to wait and see what kind of demand there is for more. For the moment, she says she’s thrilled by the uncertainty of it all.

“One thing that I had when I started was a real strong gut,” she says, “and the more success I had, the more of that gut I lost. And I feel like I have it back again. I don’t have anything planned. None of it. But I have a gut feeling it’s all going to work out.” 

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