For an artist who’s had only one No. 1 single since she first charted 22 years ago, Lee Ann Womack has exerted an outsized influence on country and Americana music. The Texas native, who turns 53 today, has gained her eminence through a voice that probes lyrics to expose the very last shreds of emotion.
Alluding to her duets with him on his 2016 album, For Better, or Worse, John Prine remarked, “Now there’s a girl who could sing the phone book and you wouldn’t know it’s the phone book.” She is currently gracing two songs on Rodney Crowell’s new album, Texas.
When she first entered the charts in 1997 with “Never Again, Again,” Womack was generally ranked as a country traditionalist, a designation firmed up by such subsequent releases as “The Fool,” “You’ve Got to Talk to Me,” “A Little Past Little Rock” and the delightfully bitchy “I’ll Think of a Reason Later.”
Then in 2000 came her massive crossover hit, “I Hope You Dance.” A winsome exhortation to seize life rather than view it from the sidelines, the song topped both the country and adult contemporary charts and won a Country Music Association award for single of the year. The album for which it was the title song eventually sold more than three million copies. Above all else, though, “I Hope You Dance” showed that Womack was perfectly capable of establishing her own vocal categories.
She scored one more Top 5 and one Top 10 singles after that high point — “Ashes By Now” (2000) and “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” (2004), respectively — but she has yet to regain her early chart prominence. However, not being consumed by chasing hits seemed to free Womack to range musically wherever her affections led her.
The list of artists she’s recorded and/or performed with is mind-melting. It includes Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, George Strait, Asleep at the Wheel, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Alan Jackson, Gene Watson, Rhett Akins, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Martina McBride, Mark Wills, Blind Boys of Alabama, Jamey Johnson, David Nail, Jim Lauderdale, Brothers Osborne and the aforesaid Prine and Crowell.
That practically IS the phone book.
Last year, ASCAP honored Womack with its Golden Note Award, a prize reserved for “songwriters, composers and artists who have achieved extraordinary career milestones.” During the ceremony, Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Buddy Miller and Lillie Mae each sang songs that Womack had made famous. Introducing her for the award, ASCAP president and fabled songwriter Paul Williams proclaimed that her songs “slice life wide open and let the pain out and the love in.”
Not a bad legacy to look back on.