Today’s country music industry banks on youth-targeted, up-tempo, positive radio fodder that would’ve been called pop three decades ago. But Lee Ann Womack remains an adult voice of a seemingly bygone art form. She continues to craft gorgeous traditional country records such as “Call Me Crazy,” which arrives in stores this week.
All it takes is one listen.
She’s the estranged lover of a honky-tonk Don Juan in “Last Call.” In her peerless soprano, a voice that channels pain and resilience, strength and vulnerability, she sings: “They’re probably closing down/Saying no more alcohol/I bet you’re in a bar/‘Cause I’m always your last call.”
On “Either Way,” Womack emotes about a marriage so far gone they “fake the perfect life.” And in the superb “Solitary Thinkin’,” she’s contemplating a failed relationship with a “double-barrel whiskey” and too much time on her hands.
This 42-year-old petite blonde from Jacksonville, Texas, has emerged as the Tammy Wynette of our generation. And she understands the comparison to the late singer and her heartbreaking voice.
“There was a wound in it; there was an ache,” says Womack while sitting in the lobby of the Fort Worth Stockyards Hotel. She was recently in town for a benefit performance at Billy Bob’s Texas. “She’s like me - if she sang something funny or up-tempo, it was still hurting. I can sing the most positive song in the world, and it still sounds kind of sad. I know it does. I think she probably felt that way, too. Life is not up-tempo and happy all the time. Some people might say it is for them, I don’t know. But it’s a struggle for me. A lot of things are.”
She pauses momentarily, as if trying to put herself in the spirit of Wynette.
“I’m guessing she felt the same way. I can’t speak for her. But I can definitely say that I connected with that feeling that came out of her voice. I just felt like when I heard her, even back in the day when I didn’t know who she was, but when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know her. There’s somebody that gets the same thing that I do.’ I connected with her for that reason.”
Womack, who sold 3 million copies of 2000’s “I Hope You Dance,” thanks to the sweet, country-pop title track, returned to her traditional country roots with 2005’s stunning “There’s More Where That Came From,” a critically acclaimed Country Music Association Award winner for album of the year. That disc sold about 500,000 copies, more on positive word of mouth than mainstream radio acceptance.
“I think she’s the best voice in country music to begin with,” says Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, her record label. “The fact that she is so deeply rooted in the genre and so almost militant about it ... I love her for it. I don’t know anybody that can emote as she does. She has an incredible ear for a great song.”
But for the twice-married mother of two, staying true to her creative convictions is still a scratch-and-crawl climb. Ever since her 1997 debut single, the startling, traditional “Never Again, Again,” Womack has been fighting the proverbial battle between art and commerce.
“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” she says. “It started out hard when I put out ‘Never Again, Again’ and it hasn’t gotten any easier. But I only enjoy my job when I do it the very best I can. That’s important to me. I need to be a satisfied, happy person. And that’s making these kind of records.”
Country music, she believes, shouldn’t be a pop crossover game. That demeans it. “Call Me Crazy,” however, honors it.
“It’s real. It has a history. It’s not about chasing something. Country music has its own kind of beauty. It’s soulful, very soulful music. Country music is for real people who work hard and play hard. It’s beautiful stuff. It’s like the blues. That’s real music.”