“Doesn’t the sun ever shine here?” cracks Lee Ann Womack, spiking the last word with her bright Texas twang. She’s been in Brooklyn for the better part of a December week, the skies a mostly unremitting gray, and with a storm now on the way. “It’s so gloomy! But it’s good for making country music — my kind of country, anyway.” Frankly, it makes her want to drink. But it’s early afternoon and there’s work to do, so she heads for the cooler filled with bottled water and kombucha.
One of the great voices and writers in country, Womack’s working on the follow-up to her excellent 2017 album, The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone, and she’s brought a clan. Her husband, producer Frank Liddell, road-tripped up from Nashville, joined by their daughter Annalise Liddell — who, in addition to being a musician and songwriter, is an assistant engineer at the Casino, one of Nashville’s sweetest boutique studios (one of her first projects there was Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, co-produced by Annalise’s dad).
Womack was shorter on time, so she flew. They convened at Brooklyn Recording — another A-list boutique that’s hosted Keith Richards (sessions for Crosseyed Heart), Dierks Bentley, and a huge range of indie-rock, jazz, blues, and Americana acts — with an entourage of musicians from all points. Adam Wright, one of Womack’s go-to co-writers, came in from Nashville, as did hotshot guitarist Ethan Ballinger. Will Van Horn, a rangy steel player, came up from Houston. Drummer Matt Chamberlain just came off the Bob Dylan tour; bassist Glen Worf just finished a stint with Mark Knopfler. Liddell loves all the players, and talking as fast as any New Yorker, albeit with his own low-key Texas twang, breaks down his production techniques, which basically involve letting the musicians discover the sound he’s hoping for, rather than telling them. “If I was a real producer,” he says, humble-braggingly, “I don’t think the albums I work on would sound as good.”
At one point, looking to refine the shuffle groove on a song titled “Call Me Up When You’ve Been Drinking,” Liddell takes out his phone and calls up an early version of George Jones’ “You’re Still on My Mind” on YouTube. Jones is a perennial touchstone for Womack; she’s covered that song, and she recorded her last record with Liddell in Houston, at SugarHill Studios, formerly Gold Star Studios, where Jones recorded countless classics in the 1950s.
Chamberlain stirs up his own version of the groove, with the guitarists bubbling up around it. Earlier, Liddell mentioned having a Jerry Garcia guitar sound in mind for one section, but didn’t say that directly to the guitarists. Their interplay is magical; it doesn’t sound particularly like the Dead, but it doesn’t sound particularly like mainstream or retro country, either — it’s a deliciously woozy jam that suggests both drinking and vaping, Van Horn’s reverb-cloaked pedal steel billowing out bent notes like fog over the landscape. With Womack’s purring, aching, prideful, and lusty vocals, it still feels like vintage honky-tonk. And the lyrics are a reminder that booty calls are no 21st-century invention.
After a few passes, they get a take they’re happy with, and take a break to ponder their next move.
So, you did your last album at SugarHill in Houston; now you’re in Brooklyn in December. It seems experimenting with your sound is important to you.
I just wanted to get off Music Row — it can be creatively stifling. I just wanted to get myself and the musicians out of there. And it makes a difference. A different mindset, you know? There’s an energy here. And I find other places are more welcoming, and have such a high regard for traditional country music. On Music Row sometimes, ironically, not so much.
The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone had a very bluesy vibe, with a lot of reverb and a lot of dark songs. How’s the vibe of this record shaping up?
It’ll be a lot like that. When I made the last record I was trying to knock the sheen off, which with some of my earlier stuff wasn’t so easy to do. I wanted it to be more like the music I grew up with. I’m just trying to make something that feels good to me, and then we’ll just see who else it appeals to! [Laughs]
How far along are you? Are you hoping to finish the recording here?
We’ll do some overdubs and vocals in different places. I’m going straight from here to L.A., where my daughter [singer-songwriter Aubrie Sellers] lives, and we’ll do some stuff there.
Your other daughter Annalise is here; is she working?
Yep. And she’s been writing a lot; I found a song of hers that I want to record and asked if I can cut it. So we’re probably gonna do one of her songs, too.
You’ve got two daughters in the family business now. Did you specifically encourage them to pursue music? Or discourage them?
Neither. I sometimes think, “If I was a good mother, would I have discouraged them from this? [laughs]” The problem is, if you have a passion for this, a desire to do this, and then you don’t, it doesn’t matter how successful you are at something else. It really matters that you pursue what you want to do, what you feel called to do. I do realize that they grew up in a musical home, a music business home, so in some ways they couldn’t get away from it. But they’ve known that they can do whatever they want. We’re not stage parents by any stretch.
What do you talk about at the dinner table at the holidays? Do you give them career advice?
Oh, no. We talk about music, but I don’t give them advice. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in the music business. They did. They know more about this than I ever did. They grew up on a tour bus, you know, going to meetings, hanging out in the studio. They know the ups and downs and all that. They give me advice, and they have very eclectic taste; they turn me on to new music, and things from waaay back. So I don’t give them advice. They can hire a manager. They can’t hire a mom.
Right — one job at a time. What are your thoughts on the fight for equal representation on country radio and in festival bookings? Does it seem like things are changing from where you sit?
It doesn’t look like it, does it? But I try not to get bogged down by it. Sometimes you can start feeling, “What’s the point? Why am I even making records,” you know? I don’t want to get to that point. But no, it doesn’t look like it’s changing to me. And I see it across the board — for women, directors in film and TV. You almost never see women. And it’s not because they’re not there, and it’s not because they’re not doing a great job. And it’s not just in the entertainment industry. Things have changed in the past, but they’re not changing fast enough right now, if you ask me. I never talk about it, ‘cause I don’t want to sound whiny. But facts are facts, and the numbers are there. You just don’t see women being supported.
You’ve had massive hits, and are putting out some of the best records of your career right now. For women coming up in the industry — daughters or not — it seems you’d be a role model, one of the yardsticks to measure oneself by.
Well, thank you. I just hope females don’t get discouraged. What really bothers me too is when labels stop signing females because, “Oh, they don’t sell.” And it just becomes cumulative, you know? Somebody has got to reverse it. I do see my daughters’ generation pissed about it. Whereas my generation might’ve been too weary or too busy to do enough about it. I do think that if a change is coming, it’s because of this generation.
Are there artists that you’re excited about, that make you feel encouraged?
We’re big Kacey [Musgraves] fans in our family. The thing I love so much about her is that from the beginning, she refused to give an inch. She was always herself. Everything that she did came straight from her and she refused to budge for anybody. She didn’t go for the short win; she was in it for the long haul. And she wasn’t rewarded in the beginning, but it came back around to her. I love that.