Blessed with a golden voice and an ear for well-written songs, Lee Ann Womack is essentially entering into another phase of her career with a brand new album, The Way I’m Livin’.
After a string of country hits and major awards, she’s now signed with the independent label Sugar Hill Records and indulging in her love of smart songwriting.
The Way I’m Livin’ is a family affair, with husband Frank Liddell producing and daughters Aubrey and Anna singing, too. Remarkably, through her sensitive delivery, Womack makes an emotional connection with the downtrodden characters throughout the album.
It’s probably not coincidence that nearly all of the songs are sung in first-person. If you’ve ever turned to music when you’re feeling lonely, this one’s right up your alley.
CMT Edge: Listening to this record, there are a lot of complex emotions — the kind of things somebody would stay up late thinking about. So, this will sound like a strange question, but are you a night person?
Womack: That’s interesting. Very much so, ever since I was a child. My parents were always like, “What is wrong with you?” My trainer will say, “I’m going to work you out really hard, and tonight you’ll just fall right asleep.” But, no, the more tired I am, the harder it is for me to go to sleep. And I’ve been that way since I was a kid, and I guess it’s always going to be like that. But I’m a night owl, for sure.
So what’s a typical night at your house, when you can’t get to sleep?
Oh, no. Frank does go to sleep earlier. I mean, if he goes to sleep at midnight, I go to sleep at 4. But the light bothers him, so I have to put a pillow up between us so he can’t see it, and then I have to use headphones so he can’t hear it.
Then sometimes he says that I’ll be watching an old music video or something, and he’ll hear me go, “Hmm!” Because I hear a lick that I like that somebody played. (laughs) Or sometimes I’ll be reading something and laughing so hard that it shakes the bed. And he’ll be like, “What are you doing?!” (laughs) But I try to be respectful because not everybody’s a night owl.
I have to ask about “Send It on Down.” I should have known immediately it was a Chris Knight song. It has all the hallmarks of his writing. How long have you known that song?
I don’t remember who brought that song to me. I’m pretty sure that Frank played it for me, and I mean, that is the kind of song that just punches me right in the gut. I can’t wait to get a song like that! I think one of the reasons I related to it was because it talks about “getting out of this town.” And when I was a kid, I lived my whole life thinking, “I can’t wait to get out of this town.” The small town, you know? I think that’s one of the reasons I could relate to it.
I’ve listened to Buddy Miller’s version of “Don’t Listen to the Wind” for years, but I never really heard the anger in the song until you sang it. When you sing “another man won’t let me be,” it’s like you want to get that man by the throat.
(laughs) I think I probably have a little more angst than Buddy or Julie [Miller, who wrote the song]. Maybe not. I don’t know.
What are some of the emotions you heard in that song that made you want to record it?
I just really liked the lyric. The “your love and other lies” is probably my favorite line of the whole thing and, of course, that’s what Buddy called his record. It sounded like a song that should have been written years before it was, you know? Julie has that depth to her writing.
When did Buddy get on your radar?
I think I was listening for songs for my second record, and Frank was the A&R guy for me back then. I was getting on the bus late one night, and he handed me a CD and said, “I think you’d like this kind of stuff. You need to check this out.” And it was Buddy and Julie. As I told everybody, “I fell in love with Buddy and Julie on the back of my bus.” (laughs)
I called Frank about an hour down the road when I finally got it on and started listening to it. I was like, “What is this?! Who are these people?” He had been friends with Buddy for a while, and I guess Buddy used to sleep on his couch before he moved to Nashville.
I moved to Nashville 20 years ago, and I remember when I’d hear songs by somebody like Chris Knight or Buddy Miller, it was like somebody pulled back a curtain. Suddenly there was a whole other world that I had no idea about. Is that how it was for you?
It was. I mean, just meeting Frank did that for me. He turned me on to Chris Knight, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Julie, Jesse Winchester, Bruce Robison, on and on. He’s turned me on to a lot of great stuff that I wasn’t familiar with until that point.
I wanted to ask you about “Same Kind of Different,” and specifically, who is singing the harmony on that?
That’s Aubrey and Anna.
I thought that was the case. Have you ever thought of that song as a mother-daughter song? Have you ever thought of it in that light?
I think it’s a song for … I think no two people are that alike, and everybody comes from that perspective. As much as Anna and Aubrey are like me, their lives at their age now could not be any more different than my life when I was their age. I think that it is parents and children, and I think that it’s neighbors, and I think that it’s husbands and wives, and it’s friends and strangers. I think it’s everybody.
Listening to songs like “Same Kind of Different,” it’s obvious that you and Frank take the harmonies seriously. What goes into choosing the right harmonies?
Oh, we’ll try three or four different people on a song, just to see the different texture, maybe a different register. Two people can sing the same note, and it can sound totally different. So it just depends on how it colors. If you think of the recording as a painting, how another voice complements or colors in the picture. We do take it very seriously, and we also do when we’re mixing it.
I found that out when I made my first record. My very first single was called “Never Again, Again,” and I had Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White singing the harmony on it. I went in to hear the rough mix, and I was like, “Nuh-uh, guys. Hmm-mmm, we gotta get that harmony up.” So they go, “OK, we’ll turn it up.” I came back and heard it again and said, “You didn’t hear me. When I said up, I meant up!” (laughs)
I had to practically wrestle them. It was Greg Droman and Mark Wright, and I was like, “You are not hearing what I am telling you.” So I had to play them a bluegrass record, and I said, “Do you hear how the harmony vocals are as loud as the lead vocal?” And they were like, “Oh. OK, let us take another stab at it.” Yeah, I want to get it from where you can hear it up to where you can feel it.