Lee Ann Womack put in her time, paid her dues, and now she's free. The "I Hope You Dance" singer split from her major label, MCA Nashville, in 2014 and signed to SugarHill, a smaller label based in North Carolina well-known for producing excellent bluegrass. Womack, a neotradtional country artist who was pushed toward pop country while on MCA, was able to return to (or, depending how you see it, focus strictly on) her rootsier, soul influences through this move. Judging by 2014's The Way I'm Livin', she was ready for it.
Now it's 2017, and Womack is releasing another record, this time with ATO. The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone continues the vibe of her 2014 release with dark, gritty themes. Today we're premiering "Hollywood," a song that would makes sense as a prequel (or sequel) to her song "Either Way," written by Chris Stapleton and released in 2009. You can check it out below, in all its ambient, floating steel guitar glory, and read a discussion with her as well.
Noisey: What made you choose to return to Texas to record this one?
Womack: I grew up in East Texas, and when I'm there, I go back to the feelings that I had when I was there. And that was completely full of hope, I had my whole life in front of me, I had all these things that I wanted to accomplish, goals—I wanted to be a country music singer. Plus I was immersed in country music, and it's a certain kind of country music down there, and it has a lot of soul in it, and George Jones is what I call a country soul singer. So all these things were a part of my life there, and then I moved away from there, and I don't feel like that, when I'm anywhere else. So I wanted to feel like that when I was making the record.
And that feeling was hopeful, sort of like…refreshed? Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Uh huh! Hopeful, it's new, on the cusp of something, y'know the energy I felt was on the cusp of something. And also, like I said, just that soulfulness that's omnipresent there in East Texas.
You recorded this at SugarHill studios right?
That's like the birthplace of the first mainstream rap song like…did you know this? Did you feel affected by that at all?
Absolutely. There was rappers all over that city, they would come in and listen, they loved—I mean, they would go crazy! They would be like, "listen to the way she sang that song!" and high five, and y'know it was just, it was so much fun to be around that kind of energy, and people who are making music for the sake of making music, and not, "oh, we have to fit this square peg into a round hole." Or we've got to get this down to three and a half minutes, and bump up the tempo to get it on radio. There's none of that. They are just down there, making music for the sake of making music. And it's great to be surrounded by people like that.
That must've been so much fun.
It was so much fun. I cannot tell you! Just to be around… music that's totally different from what you're doing but yet it has a vibe that is… that's in everything. It's like Texas music is. You can sprinkle it with different flavorings of things, but it's all very much, one is akin to the next. So whether it's Stevie Ray Vaughn, Janice Joplin, or George Jones, Lightnin Hopkins, whatever, they all had this soulfulness to it.
What made it so important to return to SugarHill, and sort of to return to Texas, for this record?
Well, just for that. For that vibe, and like I said, to get myself in that mindset, and to feel like that. And to feel new, and to feel that energy of, I'm starting out on something. And so, this is a new beginning for me, and that's the way I want it to feel.
You co-wrote the song with a couple well known music industry names, and I was wondering what was working with those guys like?
Well, I mean, not my brothers, Adam Wright and Waylon Payne, and… I love them. They feel like family to me. Waylon grew up right outside of Beaumont, he's a country singer, we have a lot in common. He and I do, and Adam grew up in Georgia, but he grew up listening to Hank Williams, who was another great soul country singer. When I met those guys, I felt like I'd known 'em all my life,and I have known them for years now. We're just very close.
How does that writing relationship work? Do you guys just sit in a room and go back and forth?
We did so many different things this time, mostly we wrote these things on the road. They would meet me out on the road, and we were sitting in a house in Palm Springs, I think, when we wrote "Hollywood." And looking up at the mountains, and sitting by the pool out there, and we wrote that song very quickly. We had a great time. And we met up out on the road several times, and we met in Houston, and we met up in the northeast, and out west, so we kinda wrote this song all over the place. I mean, wrote this record all over the place.
Do you feel like the different places that you were writing in had an affect on the eventual sound of the songs at all?
I think it very well could have, yes. That's what we do. We travel and play music, travel and play music. And so in some ways, I think it doesn't matter where you are that day, because hell, half the time we don't know where we are! (Laughs) But, when you're sitting outside, and you've been in one place for a few days, it does start to affect you.
I know that you recently sort of switched to like more roots-based sounds, and I was wondering… what sort of propelled that decision to go from mainstream sounds to more roots sounds?
Well, the thing is is I haven't really switched to a roots sound, I have always done that. But the label will take things and do things to them to make them more commercial and things like that, but I've always cut those kinds of songs, and my first song is "Never Again," just a straight up traditional country song with fiddles and steel guitars and stuff. It's really—it's not a return, and it's not..a switch or anything, it's really what I've always done, and it's just that I get to talk to more people who appreciate that kind of stuff now than I used to.
You mean like sort of in recent years you feel like there's been a return to sort of the sound you have on this record? I mean, in general, in the industry I guess. Or just in fans.
I think that I've been able to expose this music—my music—to more people who, whether it's certain kinds of radio stations or writers or publications or things like that, I've been able to talk to more lately, since I'm not on a major label and they don't dictate where everything goes… So as soon as I was done with my contract, and fulfilled that, I was able to just do what I wanted to do, and kind of market things the way that I wanted to market them, and play venues I wanted to play and stuff like that.
How different is it from what you were doing now to what you were doing when you were with the label?
It's night and day, and I love it. And I've never been happier. I was a traditional country singer from East Texas who wanted to do that music, and was on a major label where they needed it to be a certain thing to fit on radio, cause that's the only way they have of selling records. And I get that, and I wanted to honor that. But I was just never that happy. And that's really unfortunate, because it was a long—it was many, many years, and just always, always felt like I was rolling the rock back uphill. And every time we started with a new single, we started at the bottom and had to do it again. And trying to get people to accept the roots music that I loved. And packaging it in a way that would seem palatable to them and it just… it was exhausting. And it's just really fun, I get to be around artists that I really admire now, like I just did a tour with Patty Griffin! I really feel a lot better than I used to.