Folio Music

On Her Terms

After going for crossover country gold in the ’90s, superstar Lee Ann Womack returns to her roots

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Many artists jump-start a mid-career renaissance by returning to their roots. But for Lee Ann Womack, last year’s The Lovely, The Lonesome & The Gone actually resulted from a trip back home to East Texas. Recording the album at Houston’s SugarHill Studios helped her capture some of the magic made in years past by artists like George Jones, Willie Nelson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Walkin’ around the halls of that studio, you don’t hear people talking about the charts,” Womack told The New York Times last year. “You don’t hear people talking about business meetings. It’s a totally different vibe. It’s just music.”
Compare that to the crossover hits she’s known for—no doubt every one alive has heard “I Hope You Dance” at least once—and you’ll understand the impact of this comeback. Considering Womack spent more than five years out of the spotlight, it’s a forceful return to form. An album like The Lovely, The Lonesome & The Gone [TLTL&TG] is rare these days. On the one hand, it contains a wealth of historical references: a cover of “Long Black Veil,” popularized by Johnny Cash, and a reinterpretation of George Jones’ “Take the Devil Out of Me,” originally recorded in the same studio where Womack redefined it in 2017. On the other hand, today’s country music doesn’t often embrace such soul and such clarity of purpose. “I could never shake my center of who I was,” Womack said in a press release for the album. “I’m drawn to rootsy music. It’s what moves me.”

That’s all over TLTL&TG, too. Womack reflects on her early success, which took years to achieve—she studied music business at Nashville’s Belmont College before interning at MCA Records—but seemed preordained once she started winning Grammys and Country Music Association Awards. “It’s hard being little/It’s hard being small/Make it up that mountain/You’re gonna stand up big and tall,” she sings with a growl on “All the Trouble,” before adding, “Well, the trouble with a mountain/There’s a million ways to fall.”

Womack revives her romantic side on “He Called Me Baby,” ramping up to a holler while channeling her inner Patsy Cline (who first recorded the song in 1963). That feat is pulled off again on “End of the End of the World,” a foot-stomping hit that’s sure to get Ponte Vedra Concert Hall a-blazin’ when Womack and her band run through it. Further diversification abounds on TLTL&TG. “Hollywood” mixes lounge jazz and orchestral pop. “Bottom of the Barrel” feels like a country-fried B-side from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours session, Lee Ann strutting like Stevie in her prime. And “Mama Lost Her Smile” belies its devastating emotion, which sears right through the layered vocals.

Best of all, for an artist who made her name singing other people’s songs, this new collection of songs doesn’t feel like “Someone Else’s Heartache.” Including that one, Womack co-wrote half the album’s 14 tracks; even on the ones written by others, like “Shine On Rainy Day,” her prodigious pipes are given plenty of room to expand and contract. On the title track, Womack calls out country radio on its obsession with high-gloss, easily digestible subject matter: “I don’t know why no one sings/About drowning in pitchers and half-price wings/And trying to wish back everything they’ve lost.”

The ferocity of such lines is astounding. On “Wicked,” Womack runs through a bevy of heavy hitters, including “I never hurt anyone/Who didn’t deserve it.” Similarly, though many have tried, few have distilled the penultimate sadness of “Long Black Veil” better than Womack. On “Sunday,” she bottles up East Texas’ Cajun-influenced blues perfectly. On “Talking Behind Your Back,” she and her band take a cue from Nashville’s countrypolitan heyday, proving her mastery of nearly any form.
But please, Lord, let all those folks who think of “I Hope You Dance” when they think of Lee Ann Womack replace such impure thoughts with “Take the Devil Out of Me.” Her version crackles with more spitfire blood-and-guts than even an often-drunk wildcat like George Jones could muster. Here’s another universal truth: The Possum sure never looked as good smoking a cigarette as Womack does, side-lit in sensual black-and-white, on the cover of The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone.

Twenty-five years into her career, Womack has clearly reached a new, higher introspective groove. Maybe she’s channeling a grown-up version of fellow East Texan songbird Janis Joplin, a Port Arthur firebrand, who lived just a short-ish drive across I-10 from Jacksonville. “I look for songs that take me somewhere,” Womack told Garden & Gun last year about her new focus. “Songs that I can close my eyes and feel like I’m in the middle of that relationship, or in the middle of that geographic place. I’m just drawn to darker things.”

Lee Ann, we’re right there with you.

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LEE ANN WOMACK, SHANE MYERS, 7:00 p.m. Sept. 21, Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, $38.50-$58.50, pvconcerthall.com

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