From CMA Up Close News Service
By Bob Doerschuk
© 2014 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Released Sept. 23 by Sugar Hill Records, Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m LIvin’ begins with a wounded whisper, followed by a gospel rouser that somehow begs for mercy while asserting the fervor of devotion, a heartbreaking account of one more night in a forsaken saloon, an exhilarating, string-soared plea for some way to reconcile these extremes … and so on through 13 songs that unfold like chapters in recounting a life nearly lost to turbulence and trouble.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this celebration of narrative writing and nuanced vocal interpretation is that it all came together without much design. In fact, there was only one light guiding Womack and her producer/ husband Frank Liddell as they took their first steps in preproduction.
“The only agenda I had was to not think about anything except: Is this a great song or not? Is this a song that moves me or not? So when we were done, these are the songs we ended up with,” Womack explained.
“Over the years, Lee Ann and I would set aside songs that we like,” said Liddell. “I’ve always brought her songs. In fact, I’ve pitched some of her bigger hits to her. We always had that connection. I always thought she was a really good song listener. She has always listened and said, ‘I really like that’ as opposed to ‘What will this do for me?’ There’s not a lot of marketing thought behind it. She either likes it or she doesn’t.”
Womack’s respect and empathy for the marriage of strong melody and eloquent lyrics elevates her performance, suggests which words she will push slightly, the twists on the tune and other subtleties that mark her reach for each song’s essence, even its reason for existence.
Take the opening track, “Fly.” Written by Brent Cobb and Reed Foehl, it’s given a hushed, almost reverent treatment — unusual and even risky for kicking off any album. But in the context of The Way I’m Livin’, the selection and placement are perfect.
“It didn’t take long before I said, ‘Let’s just cut this one with acoustic guitar,’” Womack said. “That’s not really done at all anymore. But I just felt like stripping everything away to just a little bit of accompaniment to let this melody and lyric carry it.”
For both Womack and Liddell, “Chances Are” (Hayes Carll), the third track, is a diamond among the album’s varied gems. “The melody is unbelievable,” she noted. “It’s the kind of melody I can really get around. It’s Country but it has bluesy/jazzy influences to it. It’s got big, open spaces. The lyric is so vulnerable, but the character in the song lets me access not only my technique but also my soul.”
That character is a woman who has lived too long paled by neon lights and too often adrift after last call. “Oh, I’ve been there,” Womack admitted, with a laugh. “I know what the guitar sounds like coming out of a jukebox with the natural reverb of a room in a honky-tonk, with the neon glowing. That’s very familiar to me. I’m not one of those artists that act like everything is pretty and shiny all the time. That’s not what I do.”
Ultimately, The Way I’m Livin’ is a statement of faith — faith that the power and pain and reality in the heart of Country Music will always be kept alive, whether by Brandy Clark, Allison Moorer, Kacey Musgraves and other young innovators or by those who have long been rooted in tradition while reaching toward new generations.
“It’s always important to go back to the source, no matter if you’re writing a research paper or you’re a guitar player,” Womack insisted. “But the real, true artists don’t need me to tell them that. They’re going to seek that out because they’re going to feel it and know it in their heart. They’ll know it when they find the real deal.”
Visit www.CMACloseUp.com for more on the making of The Way I’m Livin’.
On the Web: www.LeeAnnWomack.com
On Twitter: @LeeAnnWomack