Lee Ann Womack burst onto the country music scene in the late 1990s; her classic country sound was a recipe for success: Womack was nominated for Female Vocalist of the year at the 1997 Country Music Association Awards. After releasing her second album, 1998’s Some Things I Know, Womack was recognized with five different awards from as many associations.
But popular tastes seemed to be changing, heading away from classic sounds toward commercial “pop-country.” So at the direction of her label, Womack changed her sound. The single “I Hope You Dance” and the album of the same name were massively successful, and so for the next several years, Lee Ann Womack made music that – while selling quite well – wasn’t true to her country roots.
Once she gained greater control over her career, Womack returned to the classic country sounds that had long inspired her. And she was rewarded for her perseverance: the accolades and commercial success continued to follow her. These days, Lee Ann Womack makes the kind of music that has always been close to her heart. But she isn’t bitter – nor particularly regretful – about the pop detour she took for those years.
“When I first went to Nashville and started pursuing a recording contract,” Womack says, “I understood that they have an agenda, and they have goals that they want to meet.” She signed a contract for a seven-album deal – “unheard of now, but common then,” she says – and committed herself to making commercial country music.
“Unfortunately,” she explains, “during the time that I had my contract, what was expected of a commercial country artist became less and less ‘country.’” She hastens to add that she loves the people with whom she worked at that label, but admits than once her contract had run its course, she breathed a “huge sigh of relief.”
The music that Womack heard as a young girl growing up in Jacksonville, Texas had been a major influence and inspiration. “My dad worked at a country radio station, and I had quite an education in classic country music. Our home was filled with Bob Wills and Ray Price records. Those – and songs by George Jones – are the songs that I learned to sing to.” So once she had the chance to start making music in that style once again, Womack did just that.
Womack released The Way I’m Livin’ in 2014; that highly-regarded album made it clear that the singer was determined to make music on her own terms. “I wanted to make a statement, to tell people, ‘I’m doing something different now.’” The record was released by the prestigious Sugar Hill Records, home to releases from Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and other giants of the authentic side of country music.
Womack also recorded a special release for 2015’s annual Record Store Day, a three-song, vinyl-only release called Trouble in Mind. That stripped-down release made it clear that The Way I’m Livin’ was no one-off; Lee Ann Womack is committed to making the kind of music that speaks to her.
The awards that she’s earned are gratifying, Womack admits. “When I was a little girl and I would watch the Country Music Awards shows and see Conway and Loretta, George and Tammy, I wanted to be in the middle of that,” she says. “That was important to me, to have that pat on the back from the industry.” But the awards pale in comparison to the positive feedback she receives from regular people who enjoy her music. “The most important thing is when one individual plunks down money for your album or a concert ticket,” she says. “That’s the best part of what we do.”
Something else that Lee Ann Womack finds fulfilling is singing duets. “I love it when somebody like Ricky Skaggs calls me in to sing harmony on something,” Womack says. “That’s better than any trophy I’ve ever gotten.” She’s recorded with Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, George Strait and a host of others. “One of my favorite things to do over the years has been to collaborate with other artists,” she says. “I’m now out on tour with Alan Jackson, and we do a duet every night.”
With the pop phase of her career well behind her, these days Lee Ann Womack concentrates on being the real deal. “The whole time I was in the commercial music industry,” she recalls, “I was looking over at the Americana artists, thinking, ‘When I grow up, I’m gonna go hang out with those guys!’”