There is nothing about the cover art of Lee Ann Womack’s latest release, I Hope You Dance—the singer bathed in beatific light, color scheme of heavenly whites and atmospheric azures, lyrics printed over an Art Nouveau motif—that quite prepares the listener for her chilling, open wound take of Julie and Buddy Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger.” The song is a mountain stomp of gothic imagery (“Now the walls say your name / And the pictures are haunted…I just wait in the dark here / For my dearly departed”), that sounds as old as the Appalachians, and Womack delivers the tormented lament as if a silver dagger is stuck straight into her heart. By the time Buddy joins her for the final cri de coeur of the last chorus (“Was a promise too much / To keep around”) the band’s smoldering conclusion almost comes as a relief.
The title track and current hit from the record, on the other hand, is more like what one would expect from the cover art. “I Hope You Dance” is being touted in the Music City press as an early favorite for country song-of-the-year, and who’s to argue. It’s a country pop tour de force, and none the less impressive even if it’s hard to shake the feeling that the inspirational lyrics (“Never settle for the path of least resistance / Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’”) and grand production values seem calculated to garner the end-of-the-year accolades that are already being predicted for it.
Those two songs, the soaring benediction and the searing meltdown, each stunning in their own way, are the twin faces of I Hope You Dance. Half of it runs to the quality middle of the Music Row road (in addition to the title track there are cuts on ace mainstream songwriters Bobbie Cryner, Don Schlitz and Dean Dillon), and that’s not necessarily a complaint. The remainder veers toward the edges of that road as it winds its way out of town, and that’s definitely not a complaint.
Womack opens the set with a heartsick bluegrass number (“The Healing Kind”), Ricky Skaggs singing harmony, and closes it with a beautiful bluegrass prayer (“Lord I Hope This Day Is Good,” #1 for Don Williams in 1981), with help from members of Lonesome River Band. In between she nails a stone country waltz, twin fiddles in all their glory (“Lonely Too,” by Austinite Bruce Robison), Rodney Crowell’s scorching “Ashes By Now,” and another Julie Miller tune, the very blue “I Know Why The River Runs” (“I know why the sky is cryin’/when there aren’t any words to say”). Toss in “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” and you’ve got half, if you’ll pardon the expression, an alternative country album.
Lee Ann Womack’s commercial savvy is matched by her artistic instincts, and I Hope You Dance sacrifices neither light nor heat. If the high caliber hooks of “I Hope You Dance” should earn her song-of-the-year honors more power to her, but it’s the blazing intensity of tracks like “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” that really separates her from the pack. Now, if only she had swapped the pure white dress of the front cover for jeans and boots on the back.