For the record, Lee Ann Womack does not smoke, despite the fact that the artist is holding a lit cigarette on the cover of her new album. And yes, she says, she knows “it’s not cool to smoke.”
But then if Womack had cared about what is and isn’t cool, she probably wouldn’t have made The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone – one of the year’s most fearless and soulful albums to come out of Nashville this side of Chris Stapleton.
“I have something that has been in me since I was a little girl – a certain kind of music – that has to be made,” says the Texas native. “I’m just letting the music in me come out, and let the chips fall where they may. … I have to do what I feel like I was made to do.”
After a commercial career in the late 1990s and early 2000s that earned her a reputation as one of country’s finest female voices, Womack is no longer chasing radio play, trading it instead for her own brand of creative freedom.
So does that mean she’s still country? Some have been asking that question – but Womack isn’t among them.
“People go ‘Oh, well, she’s gone Americana,’ or ‘She’s left country,’” Womack, 51, says. “No, not at all. I’m still doing the exact same thing I did when I put out ‘Never Again, Again,’ which was my very first single, but things around me have definitely shifted and changed.”
That first hit, released in 1997, was steeped in the tradition of Loretta, Tammy and Merle, and the new album is even more so, including an ethereal reading of the Lefty Frizzell standard “Long Black Veil” and Harlan Howard’s melancholy masterpiece “He Called Me Baby.”
Womack’s reverence extends to where she recorded the album: the Houston studio where George Jones and Willie Nelson cut some of their earliest records. In fact, Womack recorded Jones’ 1959 gospel rocker “Take the Devil Out of Me” in the very same spot as the original.
“We were walking by that room and we were all pointing at it and going, ‘Can you believe that’s where Jones cut all those hits?’” Womack recalls, “and Ethan [Ballinger], the guitar player, said, ‘You know, I always thought it would be cool if you did “Take the Devil Out of Me,”’ and I said, ‘Well, get your guitar. Let’s go in here.’ And we just threw it down real quick.”
The covers allow Womack to pay homage to her heroes, but the six cuts she co-wrote are the album’s true focal point. Womack confesses she was at first uneasy about giving short shrift to the “many great, great, great, great, great songwriters,” but her husband, Frank Liddell, the award-winning producer who helmed the album, persuaded her that her skills matched up.
“Too many people write their own stuff, and a lot of times it’s mediocre,” Womack says. “I guess I just don’t have the confidence in my own stuff, but anyway, I’m glad to have put more of my own stuff on this record because people seem to like it.”
Three self-written cuts in particular – “All the Trouble,” “Somebody Else’s Heartache” and “Mama Lost Her Smile” – embody the soul-wrenching country blues that Womack was so intent on capturing. It’s the same mood personified in the forlorn figure, cigarette in hand, who’s pictured on the album cover.
“Have you ever seen those characters sitting at a bar alone and you just think, ‘I wonder what’s going through his mind?’” Womack says, explaining the inspiration. “That’s just sort of the feeling that we wanted to capture.”
Womack is now taking the album out on the road, proud of the country legacy she’s carrying on – and proud of what she has passed on to her two daughters, up-and-coming “garage country” artist Aubrie Sellers, 26, and Annalise Liddell, 18, who aspires to a music career. (Aubrie’s father, Jason Sellers, is also a singer-songwriter.)
“We all influence each other,” Womack says of her musical household. “We all turn each other on to music all the time.”
Womack says she has never tried to sway her daughters’ ambitions, and in fact, she silently agonized that Aubrie wouldn’t become a vocal artist.
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“A lot of times kids don’t want to do what their parents do,” she says, “and it worried me if that [musical talent] was all in her and she wasn’t going to use it. Now I don’t think that music is the only thing my girls will do … but they are creative, and music is just such a big part of who they are.”
Of course, nobody better than their mom understands the craving to create music. “I know that if it’s you and your fiber, if it’s in your soul, in your heart,” Womack says, “it has to be made.”