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Raised in the Old Country

Lee Ann Womack, daughter of a disc jockey, tailors her music to the traditional artists she grew up listening to.

April 12, 1998|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

Lee Ann Womack came to the Country Star restaurant at Universal CityWalk one recent morning merely to help announce this year's nominees for the Academy of Country Music Awards.

But she also figured in two categories: best new female vocalist and song of the year, for "The Fool," a No. 1 country single from her debut album, "Lee Ann Womack."

"I'm real happy about the song of the year nomination, 'cause I think the writers and producers deserved it," says Womack, 31, sitting in one of the restaurant's booths after the press conference. "To tell you the truth, I was kinda hoping for that best new female vocalist nomination!"

Womack's recognition by her peers is especially notable because it comes to a woman who's bucking Nashville's hit-making methodology. "Never Again, Again," the first single from Womack's album, is a pure, undiluted country heartbreaker that echoes Tammy Wynette more than Shania Twain--yet it was a Top 20 hit last spring.

That just doesn't happen too often these days.

In '90s country music, where trite novelties and glossy productions clog the airwaves and sales charts, it's becoming harder for artists with ties to the genre's traditional roots to gain a commercial foothold without watering down their approach.

So "Lee Ann Womack" is a real rarity: a best-selling country album with old-school charm.

'She's got Reba's get-down vocals, Tammy's sob and the tremulous timbre of early Dolly," wrote Entertainment Weekly critic Alanna Nash shortly after the release of Womack's debut. "But mostly, [Womack] has more heart than any other new female country singer, and a passel of traditional-sounding songs that may just be good enough to turn Nashville's commercial tide."

"I grew up listening to traditional country music, and that's what I have a real passion for," Womack says. "Making a record with this kind of music was a very conscious decision on my part.

"Here you have a little girl who grew up listening to Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and George Jones, and those were the careers I patterned my career after," she continues. "But by the time I got to Nashville, that stuff was already over. I had 11 radio stations that refused to play 'Never Again, Again' 'cause it was too country, and that just broke my heart. But I just knew it was a hit."

In some respects, Womack's approach is a throwback to the "new traditionalist" ethos of the early '80s, when such artists as George Strait, Randy Travis and John Anderson sold millions of records with a sound that favored the spartan arrangements and plain-spoken vernacular of '50s-era country.

Womack frequently refers to such artists as Strait and Travis when discussing her career and has even gone so far as to hire Strait's manager, Erv Woolsey, to oversee her business affairs. Not surprisingly, she's on the bill of Strait's Country Music Festival on April 25 at Edison International Field of Anaheim.

"George has been on top for so long, and he's stayed so hot that it's amazing," Womack says. "That's why I wanted his manager; I wanted a career like his. Who wouldn't? Plus, his music's so real, and that's so important. I hope I can be that way."

"Lee Ann's one of the brightest new artists whose music leans traditional," observes Bill Fink, music director of Los Angeles country station KZLA-FM (93.9). "The key to her success will be song selection. If she continues to do stuff like 'The Fool,' which is a bit more mainstream, and still sound country, she has the ability to become a major star."

Womack, who has just one songwriting credit on the album, places a premium on choosing material that resonates for her, both musically and emotionally. The bitterness and regret that course through songs such as "Never Again, Again," "Am I the Only Thing You've Done Wrong" and "The Fool" are all too real, considering that Womack was going through a divorce from her husband, a Nashville session musician, at the time she recorded them.

"I had been through some really tough times with my husband, and I think that comes through on the album," Womack says. "When our divorce was final, I certainly didn't celebrate, especially 'cause we have a daughter together, but there are a few instances where divorce is inevitable, and our marriage was one of them."

Womack's lifelong passion for five-hankie ballads also contributed to the album's melancholy tone.

"My favorite songs have always been those heartbreaking ones," she says.

"I can remember being in high school, walking down the hall listening to this Vern Gosdin song called 'Today My World Slipped Away' on my Walkman. I heard the line 'I left the courtroom, went straight to the church, hit my knees and told God how much I hurt,' and it just about brought me to my knees. Even as a little girl, I loved those songs."

Growing up in Jacksonville, Texas, Womack was weaned on country music by her father, a disc jockey who would frequently have her sit in on his shift.

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