Wiser Lee Ann Womack follows her heart

One of her generation's most acclaimed vocalists, Lee Ann Womack (above) has released a new album, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone.
One of her generation's most acclaimed vocalists, Lee Ann Womack (above) has released a new album, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NASHVILLE • Lee Ann Womack has not always had her say in country music.

But on her new album, she listens to her heart and sings to the lonely, lonesome and the gone.

On this recent day, she reclined on a couch at the offices of Carnival Music and surveyed the action on Music Row, one of the many parts of Nashville swept up in real estate development.

When the floor rumbled, she said: "Blasting. You know, the builders."

Roughly 50 years ago, the country music industry consolidated its presence here on 16th and 17th avenues.

Womack, one of her generation's most acclaimed vocalists, arrived on the scene in the late 1990s with the aim of following her gut.

She quickly grasped that success would also require acclimatising to the commercial forces of the radio-driven country world.

She has released seven albums on two major labels with Nashville in their names and one on Nashville-based indie label, Sugar Hill Records.

But on her new record, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone on New York indie label ATO, she applies wisdom gleaned from her mainstream tenure while simultaneously casting off its restraints.

To record it, Womack, 51, decamped to Houston with a select group of Nashville players and reimagined country sentimentality in an unencumbered fashion.

SugarHill Studios, where she set up shop, was also where George Jones, one of her favourite singers, cut wild-eyed records in his pre-Nashville days.

"Walkin' around the halls of that studio, you don't hear people talking about the charts," Womack said.

"You don't hear people talking about business meetings. It's a totally different vibe. It's just music."

At a young age, when many of her peers were taken with television's chipper singing characters, Womack gravitated to the country records by Jones, Ray Price and Dolly Parton that her radio DJ-father brought home.

"When I heard her sing, I might not have understood what she was singing about, but something, the quiver in her voice, the emotion... sucked me in," she said of Parton.

Womack started recording in a decade ruled by megawatt divas.

She insisted that her debut single, Never Again, Again - a rueful, waltz-time ballad with robust, bluegrass-style harmonies - conveyed her artistic inclinations.

Womack credited her former label Decca Nashville with allowing her to go against the format's glossy grain, but also recognised her responsibility to "give them something they could work with".

Her 2000 blockbuster album contained the billowy inspirational ballad, I Hope You Dance, but also the country rock of Ashes By Now.

I Hope You Dance became her biggest hit, a country chart-topper that also crossed over to pop's Top 20.

Much of Womack's catalogue has pushed against the perception of countrified emoting as a maudlin affair, but she has never been one to intellectualise her approach.

She gave a characteristically concise summary of her vision for The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone.

"Country music to me was always music that spoke to the common man and, in earlier times, people who were going through hard times and troubles," she said.

"What is called country music today to me has got quite a bit far away from that, especially on the emotional end. "

Womack has called her new album "country blues", but that is as much a tonal description as a stylistic one. She spends 14 tracks embodying the most delicate and desperate extremes of melancholy.

"I'm not the one that goes, 'Here's the mic we need to use' or 'Here's where we need to put it', but I know who to hire who will understand what I'm going for," she said.

After 20 years of releasing albums, Womack has her own spot secured in the country landscape.

She does not feel the need to disavow her past accomplishments to own her present efforts.

"I moved here years ago... You get out of (Nashville) and you start realising that things are much different than they seem when you just hang out right here in this scene all the time," she noted.

"I'm lucky to have got to learn from both of those scenes and be a part of both."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Wiser Lee Ann Womack follows her heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe