How Lee Ann Womack's Love of Losers Inspired Musical Reawakening

Grammy-winning country star talks first new music in seven years, which is heavy on heartache and light on production

Lee Ann Womack performs at the 2014 Americana Music Festival Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

"I'm drawn to losers," Lee Ann Womack deadpans, also revealing that she was the one who gave her manager the idea to name his notorious Nashville dive bar "Losers." And while the critical dialogue surrounding her new album, The Way I'm Livin', has largely been about its stripped-down, throwback sound — and rightfully so — what also ties a lot of the songs together are its fictional underdogs. In fact, Womack's love for a storied loser is what ultimately planted the seed for this album — her first in seven years.

"I had not really wanted to make any music for so long, and when I heard 'The Way I'm Livin',' I said, 'I want to cut that!'" the singer says of the title track, written by her longtime friend Adam Wright. "We always find one song to start with, and then everything falls into place after that. I loved that song so much, because I like songs about losers."

The tune sounds like something out of the Seventies' Outlaw country movement, with its narrator who has too much fun being bad to care if those actions pay for her ticket to hell. Her dance with the devil is set to a pedal steel-drenched melody that transcends country radio time — a fact of which Womack, the daughter of a former country radio DJ, is not concerned.

"Not at all," she answers when asked how much country radio came into play when making the new album. "It has taken such a sharp turn in a direction I'm not interested in going in.

"I'd laugh at it if it weren't so sad!" she continues, lamenting the maligned bro-country trend that has dominated playlists of late. "It's true, trucks are a part of a lot of people's lives. My first car was a Ford pickup. But it's like we've gone from making music to making something else. The things that make country unique are what make it cool. But no one's interested in doing that anymore. It seems like people don't give two shits about country music but they move [to Nashville] and make what they want to make."

Nonetheless, Womack believes many of the songs on The Way I'm Livin' could fit in on today's country radio. But she insists that wasn't a factor when choosing the new music, as evident from the very first track. The album's somber, spiritual opener "Fly" features just Womack on vocals and nine-time CMA Musician of the Year Mac McAnally on guitar.

"It starts the record because I looked at it as a palate cleanser," the singer notes. "It's totally different from everything else that comes across your desk. It's just a lyric, a melody, a singer and a guitar."

Womack credits husband Frank Liddell, the album's producer, with the notion to keep production minimal on "Fly." His theory in making the album was that if they stripped it down both in the studio and on the road, audiences will focus on what he feels is the most important element of Livin' (and, historically, of country music in general): its lyrics. Still, the minimal production wasn't forced. The musical arrangements of all 13 tracks were spontaneous collaborations made during each recording session.

"Nowadays everybody's making everything so big and bombastic, with tons of players," Womack notes. "Frank put me in a lounge, and the musicians sat around to hear me sing acoustic, just really raw. And then instead of listening to the demo, they'd just listen to me sing it and build from there."

Another spontaneous element of cohesion among the tracks of The Way I'm Livin' is that all of its songwriters are artists themselves. Womack calls that a "total coincidence" but admits she is partial to songs that are written with the intention of being performed — not pitched. Additionally, all but three of the songs were penned by a sole writer, which is a rarity in today's collaborative country music world.

"I'm much more drawn to songs written by one lonely person," Womack shares. "I'm more drawn to songs written at 2 a.m. on the back of the bus than I am the songs written by four or five people at a 10 a.m. appointment."

And she's always loved songs homegrown in Texas. She recorded fellow Texan Julie Miller's "Don't Listen to the Wind," which plays out like an old Western movie. Houston's Hayes Carll wrote the rueful "Chances Are," which sounds like it could've been on Womack's 1997 debut LP — or a Dolly Parton record from the Sixties. Bandera's Bruce Robison penned the wistful "Not Forgotten You" and what the singer describes as the "country-bluegrass-soul"-tinged "Nightwind," both of which — like most of the album — are about lost love.

With Livin', Womack, married to Liddell since 1999, furthers her persona as every single girl's musical shoulder to cry on (earlier established with smash hits like "The Fool," "I'll Think of a Reason Later" and "Last Call," among other country-to-the-core heartache songs). And it's not just the "losers" in love, it's those who made their own single bed, such as the elusive stripper in Womack's cover of Roger Miller's 1971 hit "Tomorrow Night in Baltimore," and the fleeting narrators of "Nightwind" and "Out on the Weekend," a cover of the 1972 Neil Young song. 

Womack's reasoning for choosing such lovelorn songs is simple: They were what she grew up listening to and has always adored. "In an odd way, [sad songs] are comforting," she says, adding, "And, I see a lot of light in the dark."

Light for all those losers.

Lee Ann Womack, The Way I'm Livin' Track List & Songwriters:

1. "Fly" (Brent Cobb, Reed Foehl)
2. "All His Saints" (Mindy Smith)
3. "Chances Are" (Hayes Carll)
4. "The Way I’m Livin’" (Adam Wright)
5. "Send It on Down" (Chris Knight, David Leone)
6. "Don’t Listen to the Wind" (Julie Miller)
7. "Same Kind of Different" (Natalie Hemby, Adam Hood)
8. "Out on the Weekend" (Neil Young)
9. "Nightwind" (Bruce Robison)
10. "Sleeping With the Devil" (Brennen Leigh)
11. "Not Forgotten You" (Bruce Robison)
12. "Tomorrow Night in Baltimore" (Kenny Price)
13. "When I Come Around" (Mando Saenz)