Live Review: Lee Ann Womack Presents an Alternative History of Country at New York's City Winery

Lee Ann Womack

Although she's best known for the crossover hit, "I Hope You Dance," Lee Ann Womack is a country traditionalist.

This speaks to the distance that the genre's center has shifted in 15 years and the durability of Womack as a performer. The last decade has not been kind to female country artists, but if you can find your niche and fortify it, the format can protect an aging singer (look at Reba McEntire, who just released a new album and has scored hits in four different decades). 

Lee Ann Womack Signs With Sugar Hill Records/Welk Music

At New York's City Winery Monday night, Womack presented an alternative history of country, imagining a world where the genre ignores the sounds of top 40 and hip-hop and remains indebted to classic singers like George Jones and Tammy Wynette -- both of whom Womack mentioned during her set, along with Dolly Parton and Lefty Frizzell, as examples of "real country."

While what's "real" is subjective, what's important is that Womack is now a dissenter from the mainstream. And this is part of country's enduring appeal: you do not have to exist outside the Nashville system to make records that offer an alternative to that system. Few other genres nurture their rebels in such plain sight.

The majority of Womack's set was drawn from her last two albums, 2008's Last Call and last year's The Way I'm Livin'. She worked with a four piece band: Dave Dunseath on drums and Sam Grissom on bass formed a solid rhythm section, while Zach Runquist provided backing vocals and proved to be fluent with an assortment of stringed instruments and a stoic Ethan Ballinger played an excellent lead guitar. This small group forced her to dial back some of the strings and studio effects that appear on her recordings, which created new spaces in some old songs. Played live, "I Hope You Dance" was stripped of its overpowering production, and it seemed to predict parts of today's country climate, where groups like Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town have seen great success incorporating soft rock elements to their blends of country. 

Lee Ann Womack, 'The Way I'm Livin': Track-by-Track Review

But, more frequently, Womack wanted to illustrate the distance between herself and the rest of her genre. She played several selections from her self-titled 1997 debut, including "You've Got To Talk To Me," with pealing power-pop lead guitar. "Buckaroo," a rush of slash-and-burn honky tonk, offered a reminder that this singer was carrying the torch for '70s country from the start of her career. Not to the exclusion of all else, though -- "Solitary Thinkin'," from 2008, channeled a thick soul groove.

Womack's sound isn't the only thing that puts her in a separate lane: this singer projects a different model of femininity than most the rest of the group of women who put out records in Nashville these days. She doesn't go in for Miranda Lambert's "backyard swagger" or Brandy Clark's clever retorts ("crazy women are made by crazy men"), instead she prefers to use her thin and fragile voice to project vulnerability and ache. Many of her singles -- "Little Past Little Rock," which reappeared live with a brushed New Orleans rhythm, "Last Call" and "Send It On Down," from her latest record -- work in this mode.

Few singers express their woundedness more artfully than Womack, especially on her songs from The Way I'm Livin', which she sprinkled throughout the set. "Chances Are" is one of the most tragic entries in her catalog: "I took the wrong turn every time I had a turn to take," Womack sang, "and I guess I broke my own heart, every chance I had a heart to break."

She tossed off more self-deprecating lines during "Send It On Down" -- "guys around here want a girl who's rich/even if I was, I wouldn't be no catch." During the verses, she seemed alone, but then the hook came around, the drums sputtered softly to life, and Runquist added a tender harmony part. And, here, Womack connected with another tradition -- finding consolation in melody.