Just a few short years ago, Lee Ann Womack seemed to have it all — a long-awaited CMA Award, a huge hit with “I Hope You Dance,” a triple-platinum album and several big-bucks endorsement deals. And she got there by staying relatively true to her beloved traditional country music. However, her follow-up album’s stab at the fickle pop market nearly derailed her career, and she had essentially vanished from the spotlight in 2004.
The good news is, this proud Texan has wisely returned to the traditional country music that brought her millions of admirers — including icons like George Strait, Alan Jackson and Loretta Lynn. Her new album, There’s More Where That Came From, boasts twin fiddles and splendid harmonies, suggesting her pop detour was indeed something worth leaving behind.
In the first part of this two-part interview, the morning after previewing the new album with a private concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Womack talks about cheating songs, disco balls and why she has developed a thick skin.
CMT.com: The first song on the new album, “There’s More Where That Came From,” is about cheating, and that subject comes up again and again throughout the album. Are people asking you if everything is all right at home?
Womack: (laughs) Nobody has asked me that. Some people have asked me, “Did you have any reservations about singing a cheating song?” With this album, I tried not to think too much. If I heard a song that I loved, I promised myself I wouldn’t over-think it. If I loved it and if I wanted to cut it, I would. That was the case with “There’s More Where That Came From.”
You’re back on CMT with “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.” What do you remember most about making that video?
It just felt like hanging out with friends back in Texas and having fun. I had several friends in the video, of course. Jack [Ingram] and my daughter Aubrey were in the video — and my manager Erv [Woolsey]. We were just shooting pool and dancing and having fun. And that disco ball stands out in my mind.
After hearing the song “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago,” I think of you as the narrator. I know you co-wrote that song as well. How did the idea come about?
I was in my office with my assistant, Courtney, and she asked me a question about a photograph she had found. She asked me where it was taken or something. I said, “Oh, Lord, I don’t remember. That was 20 years and two husbands ago.” Just by the time it came out of my mouth, I thought “Oh, my Lord, my life is such a country song!” I immediately called Dale Dotson, and he and Dean [Dillon] and I got together and wrote that song. It just goes to show you, you can take the girl out of the country. … You know, not to be cliché, but that’s just who I am.
Have you enjoyed getting to this point — getting older and learning your lessons?
Yeah, I mean I’ve enjoyed some things and some things I haven’t. I’ve learned the lesson that when you’re in the middle of something that seems overwhelming, or you’re in a bad situation and it seems like it’s the end of the world or whatever, then you learn that it’s not. It’s great to know that.
I like the song “Happiness,” where the stranger strikes up a conversation in a bar. Does that kind of thing happen to you a lot, people chatting you up?
Not really anonymously so much anymore. I don’t go out that much anymore, unfortunately. I used to enjoy it, but I’m just so busy. Like last night, everybody else went out, and I just went straight home and went to bed. I beat [husband] Frank home.
One of the things that really appeals to me about this record is all the harmony parts on it. It’s just as prominent as any other instrument.
Oh, that thrills me that you say that. I do look at it as an instrument and not everybody does, so thank you for noticing and for saying that.
How important was it for you to have those harmonies when you’re making an old-school traditional country record like this?
So important. It’s such a huge part. My inspirations for that are Buck Owens, Don Rich and Ricky Skaggs. … They used harmonies like that, and I would play those things [for producer Byron Gallimore] and say, “This is what I’m going for,” and he got it immediately. … I came from a gospel and very traditional country music background, and that’s just part of it. I couldn’t have said it any better myself. It’s like another instrument.
When you heard the demos of these songs, how many of them were recorded in a traditional country style?
Of course, “There’s More Where That Came From.” And “Waiting for the Sun to Shine” came off Ricky’s record. “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” was very ’70s-ish country. So some of them were, some of them weren’t.
Do you think you can make any song into a country song with the right instruments, or does it take something more?
I think I do, even with “I Hope You Dance,” which was cut as a more pop-ish sounding crossover kind of record. When I sing it, it becomes very country. We do the old Paul McCartney & Wings song, ["Let 'Em In"]. You know, it sounds like a bluegrass song when we do it. Dolly’s a good example of that.
You mentioned the crossover sound of “I Hope You Dance,” and that musical approach carried over to the next album, Something Worth Leaving Behind. Did you find yourself constantly defending that album because of its heavy pop approach?
Yeah, yeah. Yes, because people that didn’t spend any time with the record didn’t find the Bruce Robison song.
“Blame It on Me.” That was my favorite song on that album.
Me, too. Me, too. It’s a country song. I don’t know. Water under the bridge, I guess.
Did you fight to get the Bruce Robison song on the radio? Did you want more life from the album?
Yeah, of course I did. I would have loved to have the Bruce song out. I guess the label has to look at the climate at the time, what else they’re working, what else is out on the radio at the time, what time of year it is — all these different things. I hope somebody else cuts that song.
By the time that album was out, you had changed your look significantly. One music critic said you looked like Britney Spears’ mother. What was your response to that?
You know, I got more flak about the images on that record than anything else. I just remember thinking, “How can this be that big of a deal? How can people care that much? When you get Matthew Ralston to do your photos, who could have anything bad to say about that?”
When I put out “Never Again, Again,” my very first single, I had a programmer say, “Oh my gosh, that’s horrible,” and he came back on the radio after it one time and started howling like a dog. I tell you that story to say that by the time Something Worth Leaving Behind came out, I had learned my lesson and really developed a thick skin.