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 good job of overcomin’ a lot of that.” Overcoming it? Yes, says her sister, Judy Cook, a Houston attorney: “People don’t tend to take you seriously if you don’t sound educated.” What’s more, Womack will hold back details rather than brag. “Lee Ann doesn’t let you know a lot,” her mother says. For instance, when asked how Mark Chesnutt came to sing on her CD, she replies that her producer “got him.” Chesnutt tells it differently: “I’m the one who brought it up,” he insists. “I said, ‘Man, I’d like to cut a duet with you.’”
Yet Womack brims with ambition. She has always imagined a bigger world for herself, even in the sixth grade back in Jacksonville. “I thought, ‘I wish I was where the people are movin’ around instead of sittin’ in a classroom,’” she recalls. “I desperately wanted to be where the action is.” If there’s aching stuff on her records, she also includes feel-good tunes; she wants hits. “Lee Ann Womack went gold,” she says, “but it better go platinum, and the new one better go double platinum.” Now that she’s won several major awards, Womack no longer wants to have to pay dues. “I don’t want to be the opening act,” she says. “I want to be the headliner.”
Which poses an interesting question. How likely is it that Womack will stay true to herself and still win enough mass appeal ever to go double platinum? Men who reach that level—like George Strait and Alan Jackson—have no problem sticking to their roots. But women rarely do so well without capitalizing on sex (Shania Twain, Mindy McCready) or selling out (Reba McEntire). Buck Owens pauses as he contemplates Womack’s rare attitude. “I used to hear it from Reba,” he says, “but she went a long ways away.”
Womack couldn’t have known, when her deejay father spun “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” that Owens himself would one day be listening to her songs on the radio. At age four she insisted that her dad, Aubrey, play her other favorites: Glen Campbell, whom she was bent on marrying, Bob Wills, and Ray Price. When the family gathered around the TV on Sundays to watch The Porter Wagoner Show, Womack imitated Dolly Parton, who advertised laundry soap that came packed with a gift towel. “She had those towels in the Breeze detergent,” she recalls. “My parents used to say, ‘Do Dolly!’ and I would mock her hawkin’ those towels, describing the color: raspberry red, huckleberry blue, lemon yellow.”
By age ten she already preferred the night life. “When the rest of us were getting ready to go to bed, she was kind of getting cranked up,” her sister, Judy, says. “We’d hear this rattling in the kitchen, and she’d be making french fries, cutting up real potatoes. She’d be up half the night doing strange things.” And she didn’t put up with much. “If she thought she was being treated unfairly by a teacher, then she just told them,” her friend Murray says. “And if she had to tell them right there in the classroom, she would.”
Womack had long spent Saturday nights listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and when her high school guidance counselor asked her to fill out a career questionnaire in high school, she wrote down “country singer” as her future job title. “He wanted me to pick something from the chart, and then, as a hobby, I could sing at weddings,” she says. She skipped her senior trip to South Padre Island for a week’s stay in Nashville and enrolled that fall in the country music program at South Plains College in Levelland. As a singer for the school’s Country Caravan, she rode a bus across the Southwest, sang, and tore down sets.
After a year she announced that she’d had enough school: It was time to go to Nashville. “We said, ‘Okay, but we are not going to turn you loose in the town,’” recalls her mother. “‘You have to go to college, and if you’ll live in the dorm, then you may go to Nashville.’” Soon after settling in at Belmont College (now Belmont University), Womack learned that MCA Records was looking for an intern. Only juniors could apply, but she neglected to mention she was only a sophomore and got hired. Once there, she worked across the hall from legendary producer Tony Brown but never told him that she sang. “That would have embarrassed me too bad,” she says. “I was tryin’ to be real quiet about that part of it and just learn.”
Before graduating, she quit school and married Sellers, waiting tables for extra money. With the connections she made through him, Womack began to write songs, sing demos, and perform showcases around town. In 1995 one showcase got a tape of hers into the hands of an executive at Sony/ATV Tree Music, the preeminent publishing company for country songwriters, and she landed a spot with its production company. In her time there Womack co-wrote songs with old hands like “Whispering” Bill Anderson and Sam Hogin. (Womack recently co-wrote “I Don’t Remember Forgetting,” which appears on one of Ricky Skaggs’s recent bluegrass CDs.)
Her deal with Decca came through early in 1996. In the months before her record would come out, the label started grooming her for stardom. She went to industry and radio events, but she clammed up without fail. “Now, I did have about ten people in the office say, ‘Gosh, she’s awfully shy. How’s she going to handle it when the record comes out?’” remembers Decca senior vice president/general manager Shelia Shipley-Biddy. “And I said, ‘She’ll be fine.’ I’ve seen artists grow, and as their confidence grows, as they have success, these things come easier.’”
Jamie Schilling Fields wrote about country star Neal McCoy in the March 1998 issue of Texas Monthly.