Twenty years into her recording career, Lee Ann Womack found herself searching for a musical optimism she had in some ways lost. “When I was growing up in East Texas, I was full of hope [and] full of dreams,” she says. “I was at the beginning of something. I had everything ahead of me. When I was making this record, I wanted to feel that way again.”
To reclaim that spark, the Jackson, Texas, native returned to the region where she grew up. “I went back to Texas to cut this record. I wanted to make music that I loved, music that has been a part of my life since I was a little girl,” she says.
The result is her ninth studio album The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone, a sharp fusion of country, gospel, soul and blues that finds the CMA Award-winning vocalist tapping into the rich musical history of the Lone Star State. “You have everything from George Jones to Janis Joplin,” she says. “All of that is in the soil there.”
For the recording sessions, Womack retreated to the Houston-based SugarHill Studios – a historic facility that was spared during Hurricane Harvey’s August assault on the city because of its hilltop location. Formerly known as Gold Star, the space was an early home to artists that heavily influenced Womack throughout her career, including Willie Nelson and George Jones. Nelson cut “Night Life” in the studio, while Jones recorded “Please Take the Devil Out of Me,” which Womack interprets (as “Take the Devil Out of Me”) for the album’s closing track.
Taken as a whole, it’s a moody, often ominous record, highlighted by the brooding “All the Trouble,” the heartbreaking “Mama Lost Her Smile” and a stark version of the oft-covered murder ballad “Long Black Veil.” Womack reinforces that atmospheric mood on the album’s cover, a black-and-white photo of the singer staring past a lit cigarette in her hand. Her husband and album producer Frank Liddell chose the image as a way to convey a sense of a bygone era. “I like it because you don’t see that anymore,” Womack says of the now nearly taboo habit, “and you don’t really hear this kind of music anymore.”
Ironically, Womack had her greatest career success with a slice of pop-country, the Grammy-winning 2000 single “I Hope You Dance.” While the crossover hit helped introduce her to a larger audience, it also might have left some confused. “When we put out ‘I Hope You Dance,’ a lot of people came to my show thinking they were going to get a pop show because they heard that song on pop radio,” she says. “A lot of people wanted really uplifting pop music, and they were getting hardcore country.”
Having left behind her longtime label of MCA Nashville after 2008’s Call Me Crazy, Womack released 2014’s The Way I’m Livin’ via bluegrass outpost Sugar Hill Records and has now partnered up with indie label ATO Records. The home to such progressive artists as Alabama Shakes, J. Roddy Walston and Jonny Fritz, ATO provides Womack the freedom she was seeking in the studio. Put simply, there’s no pressure of having a Top 40 hit.
“[Nashville] is making music for what they call ‘country radio.’ A lot of it’s not country anymore,” she says, pining for the classic sounds she heard come across the dial as a kid in Texas. “I hate that there’s not a place for that kind of music anymore to reach the masses. I miss having a place for real songs that are written by songwriters and structured well.”
But Womack is doing her part to keep those “real songs” alive. She jots down song ideas in a notebook and relishes the idea of not being confined by a genre label. Rather, she chooses to follow the lead of her fellow Texan Willie Nelson.
“You don’t think of a genre when you think of Willie, even though you know he’s a country singer and he’s from Texas,” she says, before summing up her hope for The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. “I made a record that 20, 40 [or] 50 years from now wouldn’t be time-stamped.”