Lee Ann Womack

Deep in the Heart:
Lee Ann Womack’s in a Lone Star State of Mind

In between country music’s early ’90s credibility scare (the one that had Travis Tritt playing the Super Bowl halftime show) and the arrivals of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and the like, Lee Ann Womack had a run as one of mainstream country’s most visible traditionalists.

Sure, 2000’s “I Hope You Dance” ain’t a textbook example of a honky-tonkin’ good time. But even in her hour of crossover pop acceptance, Womack remained a tried-and-true Texas country singer. Such prior singles as the old-timey “Never Again, Again” were waiting to be discovered by new fans who might’ve only heard the singer’s inspirational claim to fame.

Now she’s an independent artist once again, with last year’s The Lonely, The Lonesome, & The Gone issued by APO Records. With her longstanding love of country music at heart, and an appreciation for daughter Aubrie Sellers and her friends’ youthful independence, Womack proudly and comfortably continues her career without the benefits or trappings of a major label deal.

“I’m a lot happier than I’ve ever been, out here touring and in the studio and everything,” Womack says. “It’s a different world, and I love it. I like making music, and unfortunately I’m not much of a business person.”

Without the stifling pressure to record disposable radio hits, Womack wrote or co-wrote a majority of her latest album as an ode to her home state of Texas’ rich musical history. The Jacksonville, Texas native recorded it at SugarHill Recording Studio in Houston, the site where George Jones cut his first hit single, “Why Baby Why.” Among the covers recorded there for the album was Womack’s interpretation of Jones’ “Take the Devil Out of Me.”

“I had always wanted to make a record about how I grew up and what shaped me musically because I knew that was important for me to do for myself,” Womack says. “I had a lot of fun going back to Texas and cutting and thinking about a lot of the music that I grew up listening to.”

Returning to the Lone Star State as an independent artist allowed Womack to freely chase the sounds of country legends Bob Wills, Ray Price, and Lefty Frizzell as well as other representatives of Texas’ storied musical roots.

“I grew up with a lot of roots music, and you can’t help but have some of that in your background, being from East Texas,” she says. “It’s so rich there. You have everything from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt and Janis Joplin to those real traditional country artists.”

Christian themes appear from time to time on Womack’s albums. For example, I Hope You Dance closes with a cover of Don Williams’ “Lord I Hope This Day is Good,” rekindling an old tradition of country stars’ radio shows or personal appearances ending with a hymn or spiritual song.

On her newest album, everything from her Jones cover to the cleverly-titled “End of the End of the World” come off as subtle nods to the singer’s personal faith. “There are so many spiritual aspects to this record and a lot of what I do because I grew up in church, and it had a big influence on my life,” Womack says. “That has a tendency to affect everything in your life, so I feel like it sort of permeates a lot of this record.”

It’s nearly impossible to separate the music Womack loves or her personal history from the songs that’ve long emanated from that old country church. Attending church as a child allowed Womack to gain some valuable and free experience singing in front of an audience, mastering harmonies, and witnessing the impact great songs can have on listeners’ emotions.

Beyond creating time to work on her writing and focus on memories of church folks and country singers, Womack’s independence allowed her to record at an off-the-grid location, away from the hustle and bustle of the music business.

“In Nashville, there’s people down the hall that’re cutting,” she says. “If you go in the lounge, all you hear about is the music business and Music Row stuff. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to go to a place where it was all about music and less about numbers and product and widgets. I wanted to get in a more creative environment.”

Womack’s major label past might be a begrudged memory at this point in her creative journey, but she at least sees the good in being the singer behind “I Hope You Dance,” a song fans connect with major and tragic moments in their own lives.

“That song had and has a career of its own,” Womack says. “It’s its own thing, and for a long time I considered it somewhat of an albatross. But I got to a point where I was and am so thankful to be a part of peoples’ lives. Not every artist gets to have a song that people associate with momentous occasions in their lives like births and deaths and weddings and divorces. It’s a very, very special thing to have a song like that.”

With an era-defining country hit to her credit, Womack sustains old fans while introducing them to new, more traditional-sounding songs. Likewise, her recent material appeals to fans of up-and-coming talents, including one her personal favorites in Nikki Lane and her own roots-leaning daughter, Aubrie Sellers.

It’s easy to assume that Womack’s independence might inspire younger women shunned by commercial radio to keep chasing their goals. For Womack, recent developments actually find the students schooling the teacher. “If anything, young people have taught me that,” she says. “I have kids, and they don’t listen to the radio to get their music and none of their friends do. Just watching them, I realize it’s a different world now.”

With so much music at potential fans’ fingertips, Womack sees the benefit in sticking to her guns and refusing to change her sound. Other traditionalists will find her music online and appreciate that the singer behind a huge pop hit remains a genuine country artist. “It gives you an opportunity to reach an audience that really likes what you do,” she says. “You don’t have to change what you do to reach the audience that listens to a certain radio format. Instead of limiting, I’m in a much freer place now.”

Sellers, one of the little girls in the “I Hope You Dance” music video, is now a 27-year-old singer and songwriter. Instead of following her mom’s lead and becoming an old-school country singer, Sellers’ sound incorporates elements of garage rock. Still, comparisons to Mom will likely persist.

“It is tough to have that association, and she has it with her mom and with her dad (Jason Sellers) being a songwriter and one of the greatest singers in Nashville,” Womack says. “And she has her step-dad (Miranda Lambert producer Frank Liddell), who’s a big producer. There’s a lot of people she gets compared to, and there’s big shoes to fill. She’s definitely working very hard to carve out her own space and go about it with blinders on. I’m proud of the hard work she puts in.”

Sellers began her career with a wealth of knowledge after spending her whole life around the touring, recording, and financial ends of the music business. The easy thing, aside from copying Mom’s sound, would actually be rebelling against music altogether since the whole family accidentally demystified stardom.

“Unlike the rest of us, she was unable to go into it blind,” Womack says. “There’s something good about going into something blind and not knowing what you’re doing. She didn’t have that opportunity, but she’s been able to learn a lot of stuff in the studio and on the road and in meetings.”

Despite past successes and her willingness to chat at length about her career and family, Womack, like many creative people, is an introvert. Singing comes second-nature, but everything else that goes along with it still forces her out of her comfort zone. “Being up in front of people is the hard part for me, and I am a little bit more on the shy side,” she says. “I don’t know how well I’ve learned to manage it, but I’ve learned to accept that that’s the way it is.”

One thing she’s not shy about is voicing her sense of relief over exiting the Nashville Machine. Even with all of her family’s ties to the mainstream, she’s quite happy away from the pop- and male-dominated airwaves.

Of course, sweeping dismissals of the mainstream knock so-called “bro-country” and not Chris Stapleton, a chart-topping success story who’s excelled on a big label despite a relative lack of attention from commercial radio.

If Stapleton can appear on the awards shows and top the charts that often ignore traditionalists, is the grass really greener now that Womack is free of her big label contract?

“Well for one thing, Chris Stapleton is a male,” she says. “So it’s a different game for him, unfortunately.”

Photo by Ebru Yildiz.