Lee Ann Womack chose three words for the title of her most recent album: The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. It's also the name of a song written by close friends and collaborators Adam Wright and Jay Knowles. It's a perfect song for a perfect country album, one that's both very much of this time and transformative for a deep tradition.
Across her three-decades-long career, the Texas native has written, selected and sung country songs with a singular power and aching grace. Of living country singers, only her hero Dolly Parton continues to sear and soar so powerfully. Womack's biggest hit remains the gloriously inspirational "I Hope You Dance." On her new album, she still dances — she steps light and sure through gospel-inflected tunes and two-step-ready honky-tonk classics like "Bottom of the Barrel," as well as a final porch-burning cover of another hero, George Jones — but she does so through the most spare and intimate of atmospheres. And while she still lives in Nashville, Womack knew she had to get back home to Texas and set up in the legendary SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston to make this one.
"The studio is very old, and it hasn't changed a lot over the years," Womack says on the phone from her home between festival dates. "It's a funky old place. It's a Gold Star studio, which is famous for these echo chambers under the ground. George Jones is my favorite artist of all time. He's an East Texas guy, and he did his early records there. Willie Nelson, 13th Floor Elevators and Lightnin' Hopkins all recorded there. I wanted to go to East Texas and make a record that reflected the music I grew up on, to capture that environment."
The intimacy that suffuses The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone is also a family affair. The album was produced and sequenced by her husband Frank Liddell, who has become a major force in Music City. Along with close Nashville friends and ringers such as fiddler Glen Duncan and steel player Paul Franklin, Womack is joined by her youngest daughter, Annalise Liddell, on acoustic guitar.
"It's a family business for us now," Womack says. "My older daughter [Aubrie Sellers] is on Warner Brothers, and she's making a record and touring. My husband produces a lot of other artists and has songwriters that write for him. Anna is bringing up the rear; she's the youngest and is doing a great job. She's gone out with me for festival dates. I've relied a lot on her."
Womack's own connection to country music formed so early she can't even say exactly when. "Most people have this moment when they know they're going to pursue music," she says. "I don't remember a time, even as a little girl, when I didn't know that this was what I was going to do. My dad worked at a country radio station. I was around it a lot. I knew that people made records as a job. I remember watching Hee Haw and things on TV. I just knew that I was going to do that. I was very driven internally."
While Womack is an extraordinary singer, with a paradoxically crystalline yet smoky voice that's only gotten richer with time, she's also a keen songcatcher and composer. Since leaving major labels behind five years ago, her process for finding songs has evolved into something that's not really a process at all.
"The song selection process never stops," she explains. "As a producer, my husband Frank is constantly hearing new writers and new songs. It's not a process that starts or ends with a certain record. We have a pile of songs around here that I might not cut for three or four more records. I'm constantly writing, and we all are. It's not a machine. I've seen that. I was on a major label for fifteen years, so I know about those pitch meetings. Now it's more organic. We have songwriters in and out of our house constantly. They might just sit down at the dinner table and say, 'Here's a song I started today.' It's just become part of our lives. We live and breathe it constantly."
When it comes to collaborating with other songwriters, Womack trusts her instincts and the intimate bonds of creativity, bonds that can form even when least expected.
"I usually have something I want to say, and writers like Adam Wright and Waylon Payne or Dean Dillon will help me get to the point more directly. When I was between festival dates, I had Adam and Waylon come out to a house, just to hole up and write. Sometimes I just had an idea. With the song 'Mama Lost Her Smile,' I was looking at family photos. I noticed that at one point my grandmother's facial expression started to change. That's where the song came from. Adam and Waylon are like family to me. But sometimes I can sit in a room with someone I've never worked with before. I can feel like I know them. Our hearts are in the same place because we're creative people, we're writers. Sometimes I can click with someone I've never written with before."
To intensify the intimacy of the album, Womack recorded one of the most beloved songs in country history, "Long Black Veil," and she did it just as she would sing it at home with family and friends.
"I wanted to do that song because Lefty Frizzell did it, and he's an East Texas musician, and one of the writers, Marijohn Wilkin, is from Texas. There's a lot of darkness in that East Texas scene. I thought it would help paint my picture. We have a lot of guitar pulls around here. I wanted that vibe of people sitting in my living room, and we just have a couple of guitars and we're doing old songs that I love."
Country music remains many things to Womack, but with The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone, it's clearly the deep well of feeling, a well that she taps with every breath, every effortless, tingling phrase, that matters most of all.
"People still have heartache," she says. "It's not all a party. We still feel loss and heartache, just like Hank did back in the day."