Since moving to Nashville from East Texas over thirty years ago, Lee Ann Womack has had a hugely successful recording career but while this latest release is her 9th studio album, it is only her second not to be put out on a major record label. It follows the release of her 2014 Grammy nominated album “The Way I’m Livin’” and this time round she travelled back to her home state to record, saying she wanted to feel “ full of hopes and dreams” as she had done at the start of her career, and to remind people that “real country music has soul”. Well this album not only has soul in abundance but also draws on her varied musical influences with trad country, gospel and blues all coming through too. Along with some wonderful arrangements and playing Lee Ann’s vocals again prove why she is considered one of the best interpreters of a song in country music.
Of the fourteen tracks, the time round she has (unusually) had a hand in writing seven, and with her husband Frank Liddell producing and both her daughters contributing musically this is possibly her most personal album to date.
We got a taste of what to expect with the early release of it’s lead single “All The Trouble”, and its Muscle Shoals, Alabama “swampiness” immediately made me excited about what was to come! From it’s acapella start this pensive, track full of lament builds dramatically and just oozes the soul spoken of earlier. It is a perfect demonstration of Lee Ann’s vocal ability, showcasing her range, fantastic control throughout the licks and emotional delivery, her pain it almost tangible
This is just one of the album’s several tracks co-written by Lee Ann and two of her band members Waylon Payne and Adam Wright. Further collaborations include “Hollywood” ,which cleverly draws analogies from the film world to describe a marriage that has lost its spark, “like the silver screen it’s a technicolor dream”. It’s arrangement and backing vocals are appropriately dreamlike and reminiscent of a movie score from bygone days. Then on “Mama Lost Her Smile” they have come up with a gentle track which has more of a trad country sound. With its beautifully thought provoking lyrics, again they make clever use of analogy, this time photography. It was apparently inspired by all the smiling photos Lee Ann observed on Facebook (“you don’t take pictures of the bad times”) and contains an air of mystery as to what happened to change Mama from the happy person she once was.
Talking of trad country, there are great covers of songs by George Jones (a gospel tinged arrangement of “ Take the Devil Out of Me” the most uptempo track by far) Lefty Frizzell (“Long Black Veil”, I love how the stripped back arrangement highlights the lyrics in this tale of injustice and cheating) and Harlan Howard (“He Called Me Baby”, given a jazz/bluesy treatment). A more recent cover is a reworking of Brent Cobb/Andrew Combs’s “Shine On Rainy Day” , and while I don’t think Brent’s version can be beaten Lee Ann’s gentle, pure voice on this interpretation is really beautiful. There’s a bit too much going on instrumentation – wise for my liking as the track progresses, though.
My album favourites? Initially it was the heartbreakers “ Someone Else’s Heartache” (I love the simplicity of this one’s arrangement) and “Talking Behind Your Back” that grabbed my attention when I first played this album through, possibly because I love opening lines that draw the listener in which is the case on both of these. I actually thought the latter was a cover as it is so steeped in trad country at every turn and had the same thought about “End of the End of the World”, one of the album’s few uplifting tracks!. But doing a bit of research I’ve found out it was actually on an unreleased album of hers from a few years back….I wonder what else she’s been hiding from us?
But “Wicked” is the track that is growing on me the most with every listen. What fan of country music doesn’t like a murder ballad, and this one written by Womack/Wright starts off with a gunshot just to set the scene, and is the tale of a mother taking the ultimate revenge….. “Two things I thought I’d never need to get by, a 38 special and an alibi…….I thought I was good and maybe I was but wicked is as wicked does”. It plays out like a mini western and would make a great theme tune for one for sure!
“There’s a place down by the mall, it ain’t what you’d call a honky tonk. They got a new juke box, filled up with country rock, ‘cos that’s what folks want” are lines taken from this incredible album’s title track ……well I for one would prefer a juke box full of songs exactly like those that Lee Ann has given us here……better still, how about some UK tour dates? That’s high on my list of my hopes and dreams for 2018!
Review written by Lesley Hastings