Lee Ann Womack Sees the Hope

She Releases New Album, The Way I'm Livin'

If you only know Lee Ann Womack from “I Hope You Dance,” her newest album may surprise you. But if you’ve been following her career since her 1997 debut album, then The Way I’m Livin’ may be the record you’ve been waiting for.

Produced by her husband, Frank Liddell, The Way I’m Livin’ is a thoughtful, diverse collection of music that’s drawn from many of her favorite songwriters, like Hayes Carll, Buddy Miller and Bruce Robison. It’s all tied together through her evocative voice which gives life to characters who could certainly use a champion.

CMT.com: There seems to be a theme of redemption — or at least the hope of redemption — in the song “The Way I’m Livin’.” Do you feel like that’s a common theme on this record?

Womack: Yeah, I do. I am odd in that I find hope in hopeless situations. I’m always for the underdog and what seems like a hopeless situation to a lot of people — I don’t see that. Whether it’s a castoff garment that I find at Goodwill or a piece of furniture, I see the potential in it. So I think that’s why I’m drawn to songs like that.

I also think you do the “unlucky in love” songs better than just about anybody. What is it about those lonely songs that make you want to sing them?

I relate to them. I’m not sure why, and I’m sure it’s something that happened to me as a child that really screwed me up. (laughs) But I love those kinds of songs. And like I said, when most people would hear it and be down or think only about the negative side of it, it makes me think, “But it can be turned around!” So I think that’s why I’m drawn to them.

You do well with the flawed characters, like the ones in “Chances Are” and “When I Come Around.” They’re kind of a mess, but you want them to succeed. You want them to get to that point where they can get themselves “un-stuck,” so to speak.

I know exactly what you’re saying because I was — and I am — that person. Growing up, I was always the shortest kid in class. I was always the worst sports player. Nobody wanted me, and I was the last one picked. And I didn’t really fit in. I knew from an early age that I was going to leave, and I just didn’t feel like I really fit in, so I always felt like the underdog.

When I was listening to “Nightwind,” it felt like there was something missing — and after I listened to it a few times, I realized that the narrator never gives her reason for leaving. It leaves something to the imagination. And I think the song is stronger because of it.

I love that! I love movies, books, music and videos that don’t answer all the questions. They leave you with some questions because it makes you think.

But did you get emotionally attached to that character and wonder what happened next?

I don’t know if I thought that in particular or not, but it’s just so cool when you can add your own ending. Maybe this happened, maybe that happened, you know?

I’ve never been to Jacksonville, Texas. What was it like when you were growing up there?

Well, everybody knows everybody, and every thing about everybody.

And some people like it that way.

Ironically, yeah. To each his own, and it can be a great thing. Particularly being from Texas, it’s just wide open spaces. It’s a lot of room to grow and to make mistakes. And to dream. So, it turned out that it was a good way to grow up.

And that probably took you a few years to realize that.

It did.

It did for me, too. I grew up in a small town, too, and I resented it for a while because all of the people I met in college had experiences I never had, and I felt like I was so far behind.

Exactly.

But about 10 years later, I realized that I see the world differently because of that.

Right, and you know both sides now, whereas they won’t ever know that.

Do you consider yourself a sentimental person?

I mean, I am, but I work hard at not being. … It depends on what it is. If there’s a piece of paper that my mom wrote something down on, even if it was just a couple of ingredients in a recipe, I’ll look at it — or something from my grandmother who’s no longer with us — and I’ll think, ‘Aw, that’s her handwriting.” I won’t throw it away, you know, even though it’s just a scrap of paper.

Then there are other things like platinum records and things that I would never hang up in our house. I’m not sentimental about some things, but I am about other things.

You’ve been doing this a long time, of course. What is the reward in keeping things going, rather than just fading out?

The reward from the career is the fans. When they stop you somewhere and say, “I just want you to know I love this song.” Or, “That song helped me through a tough time” or “You’re my favorite singer.” Anything like that — just seeing the smile on their face when you walk out onstage. That’s the reward for the career part of it.

So you don’t mind when fans come up and say, “Hey, I think you’re cool!” or “Can I get my picture taken with you?”

I mean, it’s always good, but when they come and say, “I’m you’re biggest fan — I love that song, ‘Shall We Dance.'” (laughs) I’m going, “OK … .” But then you have somebody who comes up and goes, “I love ‘Montgomery to Memphis,’ or they pull something out that most people don’t say, then you know they’re really sincere.

I think you’re probably from the old school where you sign every autograph and take every picture.

When you tour with Willie Nelson, and you see that Willie’s never too tired to take another photo or sign another piece of paper, you learn from the best.

What do you remember about your early years in Nashville? What was it like when you got here?

When I first moved to Nashville, it was a sleepy town. It was a lot quieter than it is now. A lot less people, but to me, it was a huge city. (laughs) It was so exciting to me that a part of me was fulfilled right then because a part of my dream — from the time I was small child — was to move to Nashville. You know, it was to live in Nashville.

So there was a lot of satisfaction in just that because it was very, very hard for me. Most people didn’t leave, and I was very attached to my parents, close to my parents and did not want to leave. And it was tough. I had to pack up everything into my step-side pickup and drive 700 miles away. So it was tough, but that in itself was an accomplishment.

I remember having that feeling: “I can’t believe I live in Nashville.”

Me, too! I literally would drive down Music Row and just look and go, “I can’t believe … .” For years! (laughs)

A lot has changed since then, but what would you say has stayed the same?

Hmmm, well, Frank Liddell has certainly stayed the same. A lot of people change, and a lot of people have changed, but the music is still the most important thing to him. The lyric, the story that the song tells and the writer’s ability to do it well. And that has never changed for him. As a result, that’s remained a part of my music, and I’m really thankful for that.

Read more from this Lee Ann Womack interview at CMT Edge.

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Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.