Lee Ann Womack burst onto the music scene in the late 1990s, at a time when trends favored her classic-country sound. She was nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1997 Country Music Association awards, and, after releasing her second album, 1998’s Some Things I Know, the singer was recognized with five different awards from as many associations.
But then tastes changed, veering toward commercial pop country. 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 for the next decade or so, she made music that — while selling quite well — wasn’t true to her roots.
Once she gained greater control over her career, she returned to her earlier sources of inspiration. And she was rewarded for her perseverance: the accolades and commercial success continued to follow her. These days, Womack makes the kind of music that’s always been close to her heart. But she isn’t bitter — nor even particularly regretful — about the pop detour she was pressured to take.
“When I first went to Nashville and started pursuing a recording contract,” she recalls in a recent interview, “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 the label’s master plan.
“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 she worked with then — but admits that once her contract had run its course, she breathed a “huge sigh of relief.”
Growing up in Jacksonville, Texas, Womack says she got “quite an education in country music” from her dad, who worked at a radio station. “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.” Once she had the chance to start making music in that style once again, Womack did just that.
She released The Way I’m Livin’ in 2014; that highly-regarded album made it clear that the singer was determined to create music on her own terms. “I wanted to make a statement, to tell people, ‘I’m doing something different now,’” she says. The record was released by prestigious Americana label Sugar Hill Records, home to albums from Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, and other giants of the authentic side of country music.
Womack then made a downright indie move, recording a special release for annual Record Store Day in 2015: a three-song, vinyl-only 12” called Trouble in Mind. Her direction was now perfectly evident.
The awards that she’s earned are gratifying, the singer concedes. “When I was a little girl and I would watch the Country Music Awards shows and see Conway [Twitty] and Loretta [Lynn], George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette], I wanted to be in the middle of that,” she remembers. “That was important to me, to have that pat on the back from the industry.”
But today, positive feedback from regular folks might mean more: “The most important thing is when one individual plunks down money for your album or a concert ticket. That’s the best part of what we do.”
She also finds fulfillment 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, and George Strait, among many others. “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, Womack can only concentrate on being the real deal. “The whole time I was in the commercial music industry,” she says, “I was looking over at the Americana artists, thinking, ‘When I grow up, I’m gonna go hang out with those guys!’”
The Brevard Music Center Summer Festival presents “Saturday Evening Spectacular” with Lee Ann Womack on Saturday, June 24, in Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium on the Brevard College campus. 7:30pm. $15-$75. For tickets and more information, call 828-862-2105 or see brevardmusic.org.