Lee Ann Womack Returns to Her Roots, Singing ‘to the Common Man’

At a young age, when many of her peers were taken with television’s chipper singing characters, Ms. Womack gravitated to the country records by Jones, Ray Price and Dolly Parton that her radio D.J. father brought home. “When I heard her sing, I might not have understood what she was singing about, but something, the quiver in her voice, the emotion in her voice, sucked me in,” she said of Ms. Parton.

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On her new album, Ms. Womack collaborated with her husband, the producer Frank Liddell, and included guitar playing by their daughter, Anna Lise Liddell. Credit Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Ms. Womack started recording during a decade ruled by megawatt divas, and she’s fond of pointing out that she insisted on a debut single, “Never Again, Again” — a rueful, waltz-time ballad with robust, bluegrass-style harmonies — that conveyed her artistic inclinations. Aubrie Sellers, Ms. Womack’s daughter by a previous marriage who is carving out her own career as a recording artist, said that growing up, she came to understand her mother as “a modern woman who sang traditional country music.”

Ms. Womack credited her former label Decca Nashville with allowing her the leeway to go against the format’s glossy grain, but also recognized her responsibility to “give them something they could work with.” Her 2000 blockbuster album contained the billowy inspirational ballad “I Hope You Dance” and the country rock of “Ashes by Now,” along with “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” a searing, Appalachian-sounding number by the future Americana luminaries Buddy and Julie Miller. “I Hope You Dance” became her biggest hit, a country chart topper that also crossed over to the pop Top 20, though its message-driven appeal was a departure.

“I told Frank one time, ‘I think they expect me to be Billy Graham now.’ And I wasn’t comfortable with that,” Ms. Womack said.

Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance” Video by LeeAnnWomackVEVO

Much of Ms. Womack’s catalog has pushed against the perception of countrified emoting as a maudlin affair, but she’s never been one to intellectualize her approach. She gave a characteristically concise summary of her vision for “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone”: “Country music to me was always music that spoke to the common man, and in earlier times, people who were going through hard times and troubles,” she said. “What is called country music today to me has gotten quite a bit far away from that, especially on the emotional end. So I wanted to do that.”

In the elegantly brooding title track, she laments, “I don’t know why no one sings/about drowning in pitchers and half-priced wings/and trying to wish back everything they’ve lost.”

Ms. Womack has called the new album “country blues,” but that’s as much a tonal description as a stylistic one. She spends 14 tracks embodying the most delicate and desperate extremes of melancholy, inscribing countrypolitan and torchy pop arrangements with sighing silences, and launching into anguished, note-bending runs during the roiling, down-home numbers. The liberal use of reverb, particularly on the steel guitar and her voice, has a haunting effect.

“I’m not the one that goes, ‘Here’s the mic we need to use,’ or ‘Here’s where we need to put it,’ but I know who to hire that will understand what I’m going for,” Ms. Womack said.

Mr. Liddell added, “I think this particular time, we just did our best to let her sing and find some things and not worry so much about ——”

“Glossin’ over things,” Ms. Womack completed the thought.

Lee Ann Womack, “All The Trouble” Video by LeeAnnWomackVEVO

That’s what the other music makers in her family are aiming for too, in their own ways. An “independent spirit,” she said, is “a big part of who we are.”

As a producer, Mr. Liddell has contributed to the singularity of Miranda Lambert’s albums. While making “Beginning of Things” with Charlie Worsham, he captured un-self-conscious performances. Mr. Worsham said that when he catches himself thinking he should record something with radio in mind, “I’m like, ‘I can’t do that and then go see Frank and feel good about myself.’”

As a publisher, Mr. Liddell has signed some of Nashville’s country-tweaking songwriters, including his stepdaughter, Ms. Sellers. She spent half a decade fleshing out a sound she termed “garage country” before releasing her first album, “New City Blues,” which Mr. Liddell produced, last year. “I took all the things that I loved and tried to create my own identity,” she said, adding that she’s careful to separate her career from her mother’s.

Ms. Womack’s youngest, Ms. Liddell, currently splits her time between writing and assisting in an East Nashville recording studio. She envisions making her own albums, but only after she’s found a sonic stamp. “If I just put on a personality, I wouldn’t feel it and I’d be worried that other people weren’t feeling it,” she said.

After 20 years of releasing albums, Ms. Womack has her own unique position in the country landscape. She has the name recognition and endorsement juice of a fairly recent hit maker, along with the motivation to pursue musical priorities that predate her commercial peak. The business apparatus around her has grown more modest in scale, but her artistic aspirations are grander than ever. And she doesn’t feel the need to disavow her past accomplishments in order to own her present efforts.

“I moved here years ago, and Frank did too, and we just got caught up in a few square blocks,” Ms. Womack said. “You get out of there and you start realizing that things are much different than they seem when you just hang out right here in this scene all the time.”

She added, “I’m lucky to have gotten to learn from both of those scenes, and be a part of both.”

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