Some people think Lee Ann Womack has a lot to live down as the consequence of having such enormous success with “I Hope You Dance”.
That song became a monster hit and spawned a host of musical and non-musical products that bore its Hallmark-style sentimentalism. Knocking the track’s schmaltziness is easy. Just ask the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, who wrote the band’s most popular song “No Children” with a chorus “I Hope You Die” as a response.
Womack didn’t write the song, but she made it her own with her distinctive vocal lilts and intonations. While the mawkishness of the lyrics may be a bit hackneyed, the fact that so many people responded positively to it revealed the singer’s ability to make the sentimentality sound sincere. And corny romanticism has always been part of the country music tradition from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family through Hank Williams and Patsy Cline to the present day.
The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone in Houston, near the small town where she grew up and reached back to move forward musically. The album’s title suggests soppiness lies ahead, but Womack expresses a wide range of emotions on this release. Like Texas, the collection is expansive and has many different characteristics. Womack co-wrote half of the 14 tracks, and when she does cover Cline, Womack chose a sultry selection (“He Called Me Baby”) over a sad one.
But the Texan does sing the blues as well as self-consciously address having the blues on “Shine on Rainy Day”, an Andrew Combs / Brent Cobb composition. The lyrics justify the emotionalism, “laughin’ ain’t a pleasure ’til you know about cryin'”. With other song titles such as “Mama Lost Her Smile”, “Someone Else’s Heartache”, “All the Trouble”, “Bottom of the Barrel” and “End of the End of the World” one knows the music will address hard times, but Womack emerges from them a richer if not a happier individual.
Consider “End of the End of the World”, which uses a double negative to express a positive; her baby’s back! Womack sheds her sorrows to find new joy and cleverly recalls John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings” with the lines “Goodbye to darkness / Goodbye to tears / Goodbye to grey skies / Blue skies are here.” Hartford wrote of leaving family and good times behind. Womack does the opposite.
And sometimes Womack just needs to howl with a nasty Lone Star twang in her voice, such as on co-written cuts “Sunday” and “Wicked”. On the latter tune, she’s carrying a 38 special and looking for an alibi. “Wicked is / as wicked does,” she convincingly sings. Fellow Texan and husband Frank Liddell produced the album, and the singer is joined by notable band players bassist Glenn Worf, guitarists and fellow songwriters Adam Wright, Waylon Payne and Ethan Ballinger, and drummer Jerry Roe. The relatively sparse instrumentation gives the album a tight feel, without any showy instrumental fills and only a modicum of decorative touches.
The devil may be within her, but Womack seeks salvation. She recorded George Jones’ gospel tune “Take the Devil Out of Me” at the very same studio he recorded the song back in 1959. Jones crooned the song with an ache in his voice that conveyed an earnest plea for help and a jumping rhythm that suggested the immediate pleasures of being sinful. Womack slows things down and suggests her experiences with iniquity have occurred over her entire lifetime. Now she’s ready to meet her maker she’s ready to be cleansed. There’s something spooky more than spiritual about the whole thing. She may have danced with the devil in Nashville to become a big success, but now she’s asking for salvation by getting back to her roots in Texas. Why the hell not, as the former Lone Star gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman used to ask. She really doesn’t have anything to be forgiven for, and her new album redeems her from the curse of being overly popular by being so damn good.