Bluegrass vocalists Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski got a call last year to do backing vocals on a track for Lee Ann Womack. Bowman knew Womack had recorded “The Healing Kind,” a heartbreak song he co-wrote with Greg Luck. He assumed she wanted him to sing harmony on that cut, but he was wrong.
“They already had that [song] done with Ricky Skaggs [singing harmony],” Bowman explains during a recent phone interview from his home in Callaway, Va.
Instead, Womack and her producer, Mark Wright, tapped Bowman, a member of Lonesome River Band, and Tyminski, of Alison Krauss’ Union Station, to add their voices to a bluegrass arrangement of the old Don Williams hit, “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good.” While they were in the studio, Bowman got to hear what Womack had done to “The Healing Kind.”
“After the song got done, I’m sitting right there in front of the speakers with the biggest smile on my face, because she sang it so great,” Bowman enthuses.
“The Healing Kind” became the opening track on Womack’s platinum-selling album, I Hope You Dance. Bowman first recorded the song in 1994 for his solo debut, Cold Virginia Night. Dan Seals covered it on a 1995 acoustic album, In a Quiet Room.
“It’s got such a beautiful melody,” Wright says. “And Lee Ann can sing sad songs better than anybody I’ve ever heard. The opening line is pretty lonesome. It sets the tone for the whole record, I think.”
Womack’s idea was to bookend the album with songs that have a bluegrass feel. She chose Bowman, Tyminski and Skaggs as backing vocalists after immersing herself in a number of bluegrass CDs, listening for the sound she wanted. “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” comes at the end of I Hope You Dance, in keeping with Womack’s practice of closing her albums with a spiritual number. “The Healing Kind,” she felt, belonged at the beginning.
“Originally, we had ‘I Hope You Dance’ first,” Wright explains. “And she said, ‘I think if we’re going to end with a bluegrass song, we ought to start with a bluegrass song.’ That was really her call.”
Bowman is bassist and vocalist with the Lonesome River Band. Three times, the International Bluegrass Music Association has named him Male Vocalist of the Year. “Three Rusty Nails,” a song he co-wrote, was named IBMA Song of the Year in 1999. In 1995 Bowman’s performance of “Cold Virginia Night,” written by Tim Massey, earned Song of the Year honors, and his album of the same name took Album of the Year.
Having a major artist like Womack record one of his songs was a stroke of good fortune, but not something he actively pursued, Bowman says. “I’ve never really tried to pitch anything to anyone in country because I’ve never really been in that field,” he explains. “I don’t know a lot of people.” His break came when Traci Thomas, a Nashville-based publicist specializing in roots-oriented music, gave Bowman’s CD to a Bug Music employee. He, in turn, pitched “The Healing Kind” to Womack.
If mainstream country cuts are few so far, there is no shortage of bluegrass artists eager to get their mitts on one of Bowman’s tunes. Tyminski’s recent solo album, Carry Me Across the Mountain, includes two Bowman tracks. “Please Dear Mommy” is a sentimental weeper about a little girl who brings her parents back from the edge of divorce; “Praise the Lord” is a gospel song Bowman co-wrote with Tyminski, and for which Bowman handles the lead vocals. Bowman’s songs also grace albums by IIIrd Tyme Out, Ernie Thacker and Jeanette Williams.
Complementing his prowess as a songwriter, Bowman has emerged as a talented solo artist, releasing two albums under his own name, with a third in the works. His first allegiance remains to the Lonesome River Band, however. He never really intended to be a solo artist, Bowman says. He was just trying to make a little extra money at LRB gigs.
“That first record, Cold Virginia Night, I had not planned on it being a release or a CD. I was just doing it to have something extra to sell on [LRB's] table,” he admits. “And then, after I started it, a lot more people found out I was doing a record, and they all wanted to be involved in it.”
Bowman insists that his solo career is only a sideline and he has no intention of making a permanent career change any time soon. “I just try to do [solo albums] when the band isn’t working on a record or touring. It gives me something to do, stay busy while I’m writing songs, and it gives me a chance to pick with other people I don’t have a chance to record with a lot, but as far as our band’s concerned, we’re not a very jealous band. If one of us does good, then we all get to share.”
His third solo album is projected for release by Sugar Hill next spring. It will include a few of Bowman’s songs, but the bulk of the project features songs by up-and-coming writers like Craig Market, Curtis Wright, Shawn Lane and Tim Stafford from Blue Highway, Don and Tina Rigsby and Jay Don Johnson.
“I’m not going to put a song I wrote on a record just because I wrote it,” Bowman explains thoughtfully. “I’ve met some good songwriters, and I want people to hear the songs that they’ve written. I’m just trying to make it me, somehow or other.”
Though clearly a great songwriting talent, Bowman also is a connoisseur of well-crafted songs. He enjoys scouting around for other writers’ gems. He discovered Craig Market, a frequent collaborator, while at a friend’s picking party in South Carolina.
“After everybody got done jamming, Craig played several of his songs, and I liked them all,” Bowman remembers. “So, after him talking to me about the business of songwriting, I asked him if he’d mind if I cut them. I thought, they’re fresh, and nobody’s ever heard them.
“I told him I’d try to take the best care of them that I possibly could,” Bowman continues. “With me being a songwriter, it means a lot to me when I know somebody’s going to take my song, and that they’re going to treat it with care, because it’s kind of like a child.”
Not only did Bowman cut Market’s songs himself, he also turned the Lonesome River Band on to Market’s work. As a result, Market is co-writer of three songs, including the title track, for LRB’s latest album, Talkin’ to Myself, produced by Bowman and Tyminski. In addition to Market’s originals, the set includes classics associated with Ralph Stanley (“Dog Gone Shame”) and Jimmy Martin (“Mary Ann”), and a traditional murder ballad (“Willow Garden”). Bowman says he approaches making an album with the idea that he doesn’t want anyone to fast-forward through any of the songs. The band chose the songs for Talkin’ to Myself for their variation in theme and tempo.
The new collection marks a return to tradition for the LRB, known for its contemporary approach to bluegrass. “I don’t want to sound corny,” Bowman cautions. “People say, ‘We want to get back to the basics, back to our roots, man!’” he laughs. “I’d like to say that we just wanted to play the music that we all felt was what brought us to the LRB. When a band plays for so long, they evolve. We thought it would be nice to start over.”