Lee Ann Womack’s 2017 album “The Lonely, The Lonesome, And Gone” turns to darker themes than her critically acclaimed 2014 release “The Way I’m Livin’.” And those darker lyrics are often accompanied by a swampy blues not heard on a lot of country music today.
Womack was on the phone at her Nashville home ahead of her concert at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington on Friday, Nov. 9. She said she didn’t need to seek out blues music growing up in east Texas, because "the blues" permeates everything in that area.
“I always tell people I think (east Texas native) George Jones is a blues singer,” said Womack. “He’s a soul singer. He loves that kind of music. It’s kind of a dark area there, and a lot of music comes over from the delta, from where I grew very near the Louisiana border. There’s a lot of pine trees and red dirt. I just love that kind of music and I love singers who were influenced by that kind of music.”
The deep, often gut-punching lyrics and swampy sound and is a refreshing return to the introspective emotions explored on classic songs penned by Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash decades ago. There ain't no faux pickup trucks and cowboy boots on this album.
Well it started with a dirt pile
And a couple drops of rain
Then the storm and the wind
And the thunder and the lightning came
Somebody give me shelter
I've had all I can take
'Cause I got all the trouble
I'm ever gonna need
And I just don't want no more
- "All The Trouble" from "The Lonely, The Lonesome & Gone"
Womack said the darker turn wasn’t something she was intentionally looking to explore, but rather a natural extention of going geographically back home to record at Sugar Hill studios.
“I wanted the record to reflect my east Texas roots and where and how I grew up,” said Womack, who learned a lot about country music accompanying her father to the radio station where he DJed.
“So I learned a lot about what I call ‘real country music,’” said Womack. “What I call soulful country music like George Jones, Vern Gosdin, and Merle Haggard. I also learned a lot about music in church. I just wanted this record to reflect all of that.”
Womack hit the national country music in the late 1990s. At the time Garth Brooks was still utilizing rock ‘n roll theatrics during his stadiums shows, and Shania Twain was emerging as a crossover pop/country superstar. It was an opportune time for a newcomer who wanted to make a name for herself to jump onto the bandwagon.
“Well that probably couldn’t have been a worse time for me,” said Womack. “Because I was doing a real hardcore traditional country music. And that’s not what anybody else was doing, and radio wasn’t playing it. So I had to struggle every single time I put a single out.”
But she did adapt to the times. It was the only way to survive country music at that time.
“I wouldn’t say I compromised, but I tried to give the label something they could work with while still being who I was,” said Womack. “But every time I gave them a real country song with a lot of fiddle and steel guitar, it was hard to get played at that time, and impossible now.”
That’s not to say she didn’t have successes. “I Hope You Dance” reached No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s country and Adult Contemporary charts and peaked at No. 14 on the pop chart. She also performed the song at the 2004 Republican National Convention that nominated George W. Bush for a second term.
With numerous Grammy, CMA and other organizational awards and nominations to her credit, Womack now has a bit more freedom to record in her comfort zone. “The Lonely, The Lonesome, And Gone” is one example. But she’s still not sure a young traditionalist today will be able to make a mark in country music.
“It’s still very slick, not dark,” Womack giggled. “Like the music I like. I’m not necessarily a big fan of what they’re doing right now, but thank goodness I’m at a point where I can do whatever I want to do and still make a living at it.”
Lee Ann Womack plays the Castle Theatre in Bloomington on Friday, Nov. 9. Althea Grace opens the show.
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