Back in the spring months of 1997, Lee Ann Womack turned ears and heads as the latest signee by Sheila Shipley Biddy to Decca Records. Though her debut single, “Never Again, Again” only reached a peak of No. 23 on the singles chart, the singer made believers of fans and fellow artists alike.
Alan Jackson became such a supporter that he reportedly bought twenty copies of her self-titled debut album just so he wouldn’t be anywhere without it. Over the past two decades, the Jacksonville, Texas, native has plowed a rich and varied musical path — winning the 2001 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy and becoming the modern-day equivalent of Emmylou Harris in terms of her lasting musical integrity. Those words and that distinction both sound good, but ask the singer about her career and she will tell you that she’s just glad to still be in the game.
“It feels good to still be around. I love getting to make music,” Womack told Billboard. She feels that the selection of that first release to radio has played a huge part in her career. “Strategically, I chose ‘Never Again, Again’ to be my first single because I felt that would help me be able to stick around for a while.”
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This Friday, Womack releases her ninth studio album, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. Her first project for the independent label, ATO Records, Womack says that she feels excited to be on a label that has given her the creative license to do what is in her heart as an artist.
“They are a great bunch of people,” she said. “They have been so supportive. When I would turn records into my old record label, they would look at me and say ‘What do you want us to do with this traditional country stuff?'” Her penchant for that sound is not a problem at her new label home. ‘We know exactly what to do with it. Bring it,’” Womack quotes her new label as saying. “So I love that about them. It’s a cool place to be.”
The bulk of the album was recorded in Womack’s native Lone Star state, a place that she feels very comfortable. “It was a real thrill for me,” she admitted. “I’m a very proud Texan. I love places where people appreciate real music. What I mean by that is with real instruments –wood, and things that breathe — not computer-generated sounds. I came from a place where that’s celebrated. It was when I was growing up, and it still is now.”
One of the highlights on the album is the breathtaking title cut, where the singer yearns for a time where there were more songs about heartbreak and real life. Singing about such emotions is something that connects her to the golden era of country music. “I guess I live in those bygone days. I love music that takes you somewhere, and when people listen to this music, I want them to be taken to a different place, so I hope that it does that.”
Womack knows achieving that feeling is far from an exact science. “You never know what it’s going to be, or when you’re going to hear something like that. I do think that it’s different for different people. I sing for people that – well, the name of the record is ‘The Lonely, The Lonesome, and The Gone,’ so it’s those people are the ones that I’m singing for.”
Another highlight from the album – and a track that revisits the time-honored country tradition of a gripping story song – is “Wicked,” of which she says has a twist by the end of the track that you may not expect.
“I wrote that with Adam Wright, and we had the idea to write that song, and it talks about having a .38 special, and I just had to make sure that it was honest for me,” she admitted. “Then, by the time you get to the end of the song, you realize that it’s about a mom protecting her kids. We wrote that on a writing trip out in Southern California, and it turned out to be one of my favorite tracks we did when we were cutting the record.”
Collaborating with Wright — the nephew of Alan Jackson — is something that Womack loves. Adam is a very dear friend to our family. He is also a part of (daughter) Aubrie’s music, as well. He writes for Frank at Carnival. We love him and his wife Shannon, and their kids. They’re just like family to us. We just have our own little clique. I’m just so glad to have Adam as part of it. One of the things that I love about his writing is that it’s current and traditional, all at the same time, and that’s something that is so hard to find. I appreciate that.”
There are a trio of covers on The Lonely, The Lonesome, and The Gone. Womack tipped the hat to Lefty Frizzell on “The Long Black Veil,” and to Patsy Cline on a yearning-filled version of “He Called Me Baby,” which was also a Country Songs No. 1 hit for Charlie Rich (as “She Called Me Baby”) in 1974. “When I was making this record, I wanted to show people how traditional country music really is soulful. I thought this would be the perfect song to do that. It’s a Harlan Howard song, and I thought it would be a good song to marry those two worlds that I love so much.”
Another cover on the album comes with the final track, “Take The Devil Out Of Me,” which was written and recorded by George Jones on his 1959 disc Country Church Time. She says the recording allowed her to pay tribute to two musical heroes at once.
“George Jones is my favorite, and always has been. I recorded at Sugar Hill in the same spot that he recorded his. The inspiration for that for me was another East Texan, Janis Joplin. She had a song called ‘Lord, Won’t You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz,’ on Pearl, and I thought if I cut it, it would marry Janis Joplin, George Jones and East Texas, along with church and country, and all of that in one thing. So, that was the inspiration for that.”
While the first two covers are well-known, the Jones cover qualifies as a deep catalog cut. The singer says she enjoys throwing a curve ball with a song selection that one might have forgotten about – to her fans as well as the group of close friends and musical collaborators she respectfully called her “clique.”
“Frank [Liddell, husband] and me, Waylon Payne, Dale Dodson and all of us love traditional country music. We sort of help each other out,” she explains of trying to come up with outside-the-box cover choices. “I think it is truly is an appreciation for that sort of stuff.”