On her new album “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone,” Lee Ann Womack is in what she calls “a new mindset.” Twenty years into a career as a major label Nashville act, she found herself searching for a new musical direction something that moved beyond “country radio” and into Americana where the roots of American music flourish.
LEE ANN WOMACK With: Kelsey Waldon When: 8 p.m. Jan 20-21 Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph Tickets: $30-$45 Info: citywinery.com
Womack took her first steps in this direction when she left MCA Nashville and released 2014’s “The Way I’m Livin’” on Sugar Hill Records. Rolling Stone said the album felt “like something Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings would have crafted back in the seventies.”
For “The Lonely, The Lonesome & the Gone,” Womack moved to the progressive ATO Records, a label that gave her even more freedom in the studio.
“I think the commercial side of country music has just gotten more and more slick and a little more middle-of-the-road,” Womack says in a phone conversation from her Nashville home. “There’s just not a lot of real heart and soul in it anymore.”
“The Lonely, The Lonesome & the Gone” is a moody, sometimes dark album with a tell-it-like-it-is roster of songs, which conjures a bygone era of country singers who packed great vocal styles and storytelling into their songs.
“On this record, I was able to get a lot grittier and a lot more down home,” Womack says adding, “I wanted to get back to my roots.”
To record the album, Womack literally went back to Texas (she grew up in the East Texas town of Jacksonville). Much of the album was recorded at Houston’s storied SugarHill Recording Studios, where icons such as Lightin’ Hopkins, George Jones and Willie Nelson have recorded. Her music producer husband, Frank Liddell, helmed the album using vintage microphones, live takes and traditional instruments.
“I wanted to capture that soulful East Texas vibe,” Womack, 51, recalls. “So it was really cool to be around people who think of music as art and not simply commerce.”
At Liddell’s prodding, Womack returned to songwriting on this album something she had stepped away from in recent decades.
“When you’re on a major label and the clock is ticking for you to produce another record and you’re on the road and you’re raising two kids, there isn’t a lot of time for writing,” Womack says. “I’m at a place in my life now where I can take the time and settle in and write.”
Among the songs she co-wrote is “Hollywood,” a devastating relationship-gone-bad ballad that takes inspiration from the countrypolitan era of Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride. “I really enjoy performing this one,” she says. “It just takes me right to the emotional middle of that relationship.”
Among the covers on the album is Harlan Howard’s “He Called Me Baby,” a song Howard’s wife, Melanie, suggested she record.
“I’ve always said that real country music is not pop music; it’s soul music,” Womack says. “I think this song really reflects that thought.”
Womack, who has one of country music’s finest voices, insists she never entirely gave in to the idea of modern country. Her first single upon landing in Nashville in 1997 was “Never Again, Again,” a song steeped in the tradition of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
She had a record deal for eight commercial country albums, which took 16 years to complete. In the meantime she was hanging out with “the cool kids,” friends like Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Patty Griffin. And even on those eight albums aimed at country radio, she managed to include songs that reflected her true style.
“If you listen to every record I’ve made, you’ll find real country songs. Of course, the label wasn’t going to pick those to get behind but they were there and I still performed them for people. I can just do a lot more of that now.”
As the mother of two grown daughters now testing the waters of the music business, Womack sees the heart and soul of country music being revived by the steady work of Americana artists young and old. She sees hope for the future.
“When I see people who really like the real stuff, the heartfelt stuff, I see young people,” she said. “And I love that.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.