Lee Ann Womack is one of those fortunate people who knows what she wants. Armed with talent, guided by a fierce determination to succeed and possessed of the intelligence and focus to achieve her goals, she has boldly issued her third album, I Hope You Dance, to critical and popular fanfare. The sweeping title cut is a hit and in some industry circles is being touted as her career record. Lauded since her 1997 debut as one of the few female torchbearers of traditional country music who also manages to maintain a contemporary sound, CMT’s June Showcase Artist is poised to move to the next level of stardom.
Such self-confidence might be misconstrued as an over-developed ego but in Womack’s case, it is simply the fruition of dreams harbored since she began singing as a young girl in her native Jacksonville, Texas. From the time her kindergarten report card read “Lee Ann is very interested in music,” her singular passion has been to be a country music star. The support she got from her family to pursue her dream prompted her to move to Nashville with her then-husband, country artist Jason Sellers, and the two spent a decade singing in local clubs, networking with songwriters and independently working toward their recording deals.
Despite taking a couple of years off when her elder daughter, 9-year-old Aubrie, was born, Womack’s resolve to succeed remained steadfast. After successful outings for now-defunct Decca Records, and hits such as “The Fool” and “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” she landed at MCA, home of country powerhouses Vince Gill, George Strait, Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. In such daunting company, Womack returned to the studio with producer Mark Wright, who oversaw her previous successes.
“When I went from Decca to MCA, I went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a very small fish with a lot of other big fish,” she muses in a recent telephone interview from her home in Nashville. “I had concerns about my place at the label and wanted to live up to MCA Records, so I took a lot more time and worked a lot harder on this album.
“I felt like my other two records were up to par with those artists, quite honestly, and I really wanted to make extra-sure that I got the attention I needed at the label. And what better way to do that than to give them the best album they’ve had all year?”
She need not have worried. Bruce Hinton, head of MCA Nashville, reports to CMT Showcase that the label is excited by Womack’s potential to become a major player in the country arena.
“[In Lee Ann's case], it’s more than having just a hit record. It’s about having a real career and a real artist. I Hope You Dance is certainly one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s the album to beat for the year, in terms of the quality of cut after cut after cut,” Hinton says.
Womack’s focus in making I Hope You Dance expanded beyond the usual formula of simply hiring studio musicians and singers to help her create the project she wanted. She also pulled in her husband, producer Frank Liddell, to give a fresh perspective to three of the record’s 12 tracks. In addition, she invited an eclectic mix of songwriters and other artists to participate including Ricky Skaggs, Buddy and Julie Miller, Sellers and Rodney Crowell.
“They bring character to the record,” she says. “I love nothing more than to have a songwriter come in and sing on their own song. I try to think who the best person to sing on each cut would be and get those people in there. I want to give the song what it deserves.”
Liddell says Womack spends a lot of time not only on deciding who she’ll ask to join her in recording, but also gathering just the right songs for her projects.
“One of the greatest things about a great artist to me is that they know what songs, what material, is right for them,” notes Liddell in an interview with CMT Showcase. “It’s innate. And [Lee Ann] has spent a lot of time, a lot of years and countless hours listening to music and studying and thinking and living this life. She’s always asking questions, of me, of anybody and everybody. She is very focused.”
Producer Wright agrees. “She’s somebody who thought about this for a long time, even before she got to town,” he tells CMT Showcase. “She wants to be around writers, to understand what great songs are about. It’s apparent when you’re sitting down to talk to her about music, trying to decide how to approach a record, that she’s really done her homework.
“For someone who has such strong ideas, her listening abilities are extraordinary. She’s a great student. She learns quickly and she’s willing to try things. She knows what makes her happy and she works until she gets it.”
Womack has a special way of measuring her success. In the liner notes of I Hope You Dance, she admits that “I’m guilty of making my records to impress about five or six people in this world. Well, thank goodness those five or six people have very high standards! I won’t name them here, and you probably don’t even know who you are, but I’ll be watching out of the corner of my eye to see your reactions!”
Asked to name the heroes to whom she alludes, Womack politely refuses. “They are important to me because they have been a part of great music for years. They are the people I looked up to when I was back in Texas and wanted to be here making records. I probably won’t ever say who those people are, but I admire them and I’m constantly watching to see what they think.
“I’ve always wanted to be, no matter what I did, at the top of my field,” she continues. “I’m not one to predict the future, but I know that with a lot of hard work and good music, you can go a lot of places and do a lot of great things. I have a lot of things I’d like to accomplish, and I think this album will hopefully help give me a giant leap in that direction.”
Womack is ready to make that leap. As part of the George Strait Festival Tour, she is performing for many thousands of country fans every week. “I Hope You Dance” is making its way to the top of the charts, and the video for the song is CMT’s Breakout Video this week.
“I think her time has come, and I think she sees that and realizes it,” observes Liddell. “Everything she thinks about right now is in terms of her career. It’s amazing. It’s really neat to watch … I’m learning a lot from her. And it’s gonna pay off. I mean, hide and watch. It’s gonna pay off.”