How Lee Ann Womack Quietly Became One of Country's Most Consistent Songwriters

Ebru Yildiz/Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Lee Ann Womack

“I guess I was sort of having a pity party,” Lee Ann Womack says of the brooding “Am I The Only Thing That You’ve Done Wrong," the only song she co-wrote on her 1997 self-titled debut. She remembers its inspiration perfectly: her first husband, fellow singer-songwriter Jason Sellers, was out on the road with Ricky Skaggs, and she was sitting at home “big and pregnant," working at a daycare while Sellers toured the world. “It felt like every time I turned the TV on, he was there,” she says. Ironically, he became one of the song’s co-writers. “I think I probably just told him the hook and he goes, ‘Damn, that's a good hook, let's write it,’” she recalls, laughing. “It's always the music first in my life.”

That ethos has carried Womack through eight critically-acclaimed studio albums, the latest of which, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, is out now on ATO Records. The album is unique in her catalog both for its rough-around-the-edges aesthetic, and the fact that it features more songs Womack co-wrote than any of her previous albums. “That was more coincidental than anything, I think,” Womack says. “Sometimes I'm looking for a certain type of song, or lyric that I just can't find so it has to be written.”

Womack is best known for her evocative soprano, which she’s spent the last two decades showing off over timeless, transcendent country songs (”I Hope You Dance,” the 2000 pop crossover hit that brought her to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, is the exception, not the rule). Her commitment to a version of country music that’s all but disappeared from radio guides the majority of her catalog, as it does her songwriting. Bob Willis’ 1942 single “Dusty Skies” (written by Nashville pioneer Cindy Walker) was the first song she remembers falling in love with, and fellow Texan George Jones figures heavily among her influences—there’s even a cover of one of his songs on her new album. “I wanted to be a traditional country singer, and those songs were not just laying around everywhere,” she says, explaining what made her keep writing once she got to Nashville in the late 1980s. “I had a life at that point, and the things I wanted to say I couldn't find in the songs I was getting—so, I wrote my own.”

The result is a quietly impressive catalog of songs that span Womack’s entire career, recalling the classic sound she loves without sounding like museum pieces. Take “Mama Lost Her Smile,” off The Lonely, which was inspired by Facebook, of all things. It’s a story about divorce as shown through family photos—”You don’t take pictures of the bad times,” she sings frankly of the difference between the images and reality. “I was just thinking about all the pictures that people post of their families, and how perfect and beautiful they all look,” she says, calling it the most personal song on the album. “They didn't used to look that way, when you look back at my grandparents' family photos.”

Womack has penned a few bouncier tracks (try “If You’re Ever Down In Dallas” or “I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something”), but it’s clear that weepy ballads are special to her. “People ask why I named the record The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, and that's because those are the people I sing for,” she says. “Like, country music used to be, you know? For the working man, the common man, whatever you want to call it.”

Some of Womack’s best songs tap into the specific experience of women getting older, bringing the kind of female introspection that’s usually forgotten—not just in country, but in music—to the forefront. “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago,” off her critically acclaimed 2005 album There’s More Where That Came From, is about nostalgia (“Water under the bridge/I guess that’s all life really is”) and acceptance (“With all the wrong turns I’ve made/I’m right where I should be”). “We've been through so many years in this business where women feel like they have to be tough and show what badasses they are,” Womack says. “But I'm not afraid to be the victim either, because women are victims sometimes. Not always. I've just never been afraid to explore that side of things, and show my own vulnerability that way.”

The song was co-written with Sony/ATV songwriter Dale Dodson, like a number of tracks in her catalog—including two on the new album. Dodson’s job, along with writing country hits for everyone from George Strait to Reba McEntire, is to resurface demos from throughout the company’s long history in Nashville and bring them to new artists. Womack met him when she was first talking to Sony about a publishing deal. “A person there knew how much I loved old country music and said, ‘There's a guy here you have to meet,’ “ she remembers now. “His office at the time was literally a closet. He had all these old demos on vinyl, and so we would go to his closet and play vinyl records. At the time, I was signing at the company, so they kept wanting me to meet with the president and the vice president and stuff, but the only person I ever wanted to talk to was Dale in his closet.”

Today, Womack’s songwriting circle is as personal as the songs themselves—she’s married to producer Frank Liddell (Miranda Lambert) and has worked with Sellers, her first husband, on a number of projects since their divorce. Her daughter Aubrie Sellers is a singer and songwriter in her own right. Adam Wright and Waylon Payne, both of whom have played in her band, co-wrote much of The Lonely with Womack. “We all have a great deal of respect for each other—my husband, my ex-husband, my daughter,” she says. “It was always important to me that we were all sort of in it together, that we took care of our own music and each other's music. I'm really proud of the clique we have.”

Her process is spontaneous -- though she says Liddell is always pushing her to write more. “There have been times where I've tried to be more disciplined about it, but the fact is I don't usually write unless I have an idea, something that I've really been through,” she says. “If I'm feeling really creative, I might write constantly for weeks. If not, I might go months without writing, but I never go that long without getting ideas and jotting them down.” Womack keeps many of her ideas in what she calls her “Willie bag.” “It's this denim tote bag that's partially made out of an old Willie Nelson t-shirt that a friend gave me,” she says. “I have a bunch of tablets and notes and papers and things crammed in that bag and it's in my closet -- it's so full that the strap broke on it. I keep a lot of things in my Willie bag.”

When it comes to writing and picking songs, Womack says there’s no real secret to her success besides going with her gut—something that comes through in the looser, more raw feel of the new album. “Whether they write the song or not, I do feel like the singer really needs to connect with the song, because they’re obviously the vehicle to get the song to the people,” she concludes. “I do everything from the heart. It probably wouldn't be the best business advice, but what I think is most important is that a singer shares a song.”