The first song on Lee Ann Womack’s new album, “Last Call”, presents the image of a man in a bar, drinking his sorrows away, playing sad songs on the jukebox, and drunk-dialing his ex to get her back. It’s a traditional Country & Western image. But we hear it from a different perspective, that of the woman on the other end, at home, hearing the phone ring and ignoring it because she knows who it is and what he wants. Musically, the song is situated on her side as well. It’s more ultra-serious soft-pop balladry than tear-in-beer country. Womack dismissively sings, “it’s always the same old song”, perhaps a modern view on country traditionalists, while the music also fits a modern prototype.
In a way, this is part of the Lee Ann Womack story, a crossroads of tradition and modern ways. She has an old Texas voice, compared to Dolly Parton for good reason, which is why on “Last Call” something seems mismatched. She sounds more comfortable two songs later, when she’s in that dark old bar herself, doing some “Solitary Thinkin’” and “lonesome drinking”. She came here to hear one sad song, but knows she’ll stay until closing time because she feels right at home. This time, she’s the one doing the calling: “I let it ring / On and on / In a lonesome serenade”. She sounds right at home, too: relaxed. And in that setting, her voice shines.
The same relaxed atmosphere helps here on the superb second half of the album, from the seventh song on. “The King of Broken Hearts” is one of those songs country music characters hear playing on the jukebox in the country bar, and it’s sung well here by Womack. “If These Walls Could Talk” (they’d pray) is a clever spin on the domestic-drama country song, as she sings of “5,000 square feet of living hell / And two hearts that need to be saved”. The George Strait duet “Everything But Quits” looks back to tradition, too, with a light Texas waltz. It’s a leisurely stroll, an old-fashioned love song, with strong, confident singing from both.
“I Think I Know” is a tribute to passed-away country legends, but a restrained one, and better for it. She’s not trying to stand on top of anyone’s grave. The message is there’s an inner loneliness that accompanies commercial success and failure. It’s a song aware of the spine of sorrow within country music, and it’s finely, carefully written. Another place where songwriting itself takes Womack to new heights is “The Bees”, an at-first confounding song with many levels to it. The song tells a lot quickly. The main character’s mom ran away, her father beat her, and now she sits on the front porch thinking back on those times, listening to the bees buzzing and thinking of what their families are like. The song is filled with vivid details, tells a complete story (with a happy ending, even), and has a chorus mysterious enough to pique interest. Womack doesn’t over-sing it, either. She’s quiet, right there with the details in the song and at the same time capturing that Southern, summer-on-the-porch vibe. Even with the happy ending, there’s nothing sappy about it—which can’t be said for some of the other songs here.
Actually, sentimentality isn’t the problem so much as the songs’ arrangements glossing over the darker side, forgetting about the “crazy” in the album title. Like on “Either Way”, where she sings a song of devastation, but the devastation doesn’t carry through. Then again, she often sings her way out of traps like that. The carpe diem song “The Story of My Life”, a would-be follow-up to her instructional hit “I Hope You Dance”, doesn’t sound half as self-righteous as it would in someone else’s hands. Or listen to “I Found It in You”, a boisterous love song, typical in sentiment but sung to the rafters. She has a way of taking old sentiments and making them sound vibrant and new, even if in the traditional/modern balance she often tilts to the latter when you want her to lean towards the former.
One song on Call Me Crazy has this as a theme, actually. “I thank God for those who make the old new again”, she sings on “New Again”. The song makes a connection between old/new things and old/new selves, getting a little too self-help-book for my taste. But then there’s a moment in the song where she tries to tap into more universal feelings and hits pay dirt, singing as a stream the lines, “We’re all lost and found / Damaged goods / Cast aside / Misunderstood / Scratched and dented / Needing paint / A sin away from a saint”. Call Me Crazy is best when Womack conveys the understanding that we’re all sinners, when musically she doesn’t try too hard to isolate herself from the sins. After all, in the world of country music, sin is never that far away.