(Hits and Misses 7)
Lee Ann Womack (ATO Records, 2017)
Back in 2014, Suzy Bogguss released an album of Merle Haggard songs, called Lucky. It was for the most part delightful, as Suzy’s crystalline voice always is, but to my ear marred by odd musical accompaniments created, I assume, by her producer-husband Doug Crider.
It’s happened again. Lee Ann Womack has a stunning new album, with some powerful new songs, and—weird production. Lee Ann has a husband, too, named Frank Liddell. He’s an ACM Album of the Year producer, so he knows his stuff. Maybe producing his wife means experimenting with new wrinkles in sound. But are they helping the songs?
And there are some standout songs. “The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone” is one. Co-written by Jay Knowles and Adam Wright, it calls you right to the heart of country music:
Nobody writes goodbye notes
And takes off to God-on-knows on trains anymore
And to tell you the truth I don’t really
See much use in walking the floor. . .
The only way this heartache
Is like an old Hank Williams song
Is the lonely, the lonesome, and the gone.
For Lee Ann it becomes a plaintive, longing, melancholy reflection, ending with
He never sang about
Watching a Camry pulling out
Of a crowded apartment parking lot . .
It’s a beautiful song, but if you listen behind Lee Ann, you’ll hear interruptive bursts and discordant bleats where they don’t belong. It’s followed by Harlan Howard’s “He Called Me Baby,” where Lee Ann is attempting to wax lyrical, but the band is chugging along in a quasi-blues rhythm that has little to do with the lyric, and then a chorus jumps in to finish her off.
Adam Wright’s “End of the End of the World,” another excellent lyric, has a more supportive acoustic musical framework to start, but then the song is dragged down with a distractingly heavy rhythm.
My other favorite song on the album, written by Adam Wright, Waylon Payne, and Lee Ann herself, is a heart-tugger called “Mama Lost Her Smile,” making the point that
You don’t take pictures of the bad times
We only wanna remember all the sunshine
We don’t live in pictures this is real life
And they’re about as different as black and white
The song begins with a quiet piano introduction and proceeds tastefully, but somewhere along the piano and percussion seems to yield mid-range distortion. Is it deliberate? I listened both with speakers and headphones, and still hear it. The experience is quite distracting from Lee Ann Womack’s delicate, moving vocal.
Too often the instrumental shenanigans seem to bear little relation to the vocals. The upbeat “(Nobody Home on a) Sunday” devolves into psychodelic rock guitars and chorus. The blues “All the Trouble” does play on Lee Ann’s tumultuous vocal, but with its sound effects and gimmicks, is simply overproduced. “Hollywood” features odd little guitar figures, followed by a strange, long coda with chorus.
Some exceptions to my complaint about the production: “Someone Else’s Heartache,” and “Long Black Veil,” both of which elevate Lee Ann to the front and support her with gentle solo acoustic guitar. Her version of the Lefty Frizzell (Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin) classic is slower than Lefty’s, with the “Vei-l-l-l” drawn out, but it’s masterful—though it is odd to hear a woman sing what is a definitive male part. Then there’s her too-short reprise of George Jones’s early “Take the Devil Out of Me,” which preserves the flavor of the original while letting Lee Ann surpass the young master at his own game.
But hey, I’m really happy to hear Lee Ann Womack sing. It would have been nice to have Frank Liddell spend more more time showcasing her voice, and less time fooling around with quasi-jazzy-whatever backgrounds. But if you’re looking for good, well-written country songs, beautifully performed by one of the premier singers of the genre, you’ll want this album. Here’s Lee Ann with “Mama Lost Her Smile’:
Vocals: Major HIT. Production: Mostly MISS. /CL