The Controlled Recklessness of Lee Ann Womack

Catching up with the country singer-songwriter on her decades-long career, Texas roots, and new album The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone

Photo: Brennan Wesley

It’s been twenty years since Lee Ann Womack released her debut album, and since then, she’s been widely lauded as one of Nashville’s great voices. But for her forthcoming ninth record, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone, the Grammy Award–winning artist returned to her Texas roots—literally. “Every time I go back to East Texas, I feel like I’m on fire, and I wanted to feel like that again,” Womack says. “I wanted to feel like I was on the cusp of something new and big.”

So Womack recorded much of The Lonely at Houston’s storied SugarHill Studios, a room that has hosted icons such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Nelson. There, Womack’s strong storytelling and old-school sound emerged in full. The standout track “Hollywood,” one of The Lonely’s eleven original compositions, is a melancholy number that takes cues from the countrypolitan era of Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride, while “Sunday,” a bluesier slow burn, shows off Womack’s trademark vocals. She lends a distinct new angle to three cover songs, too—the last of which, George Jones’s “Take the Devil Out of Me,” was recorded for the first time in the very same room decades earlier. “I just look for songs that take me somewhere,” Womack says. “Songs that I can close my eyes and feel like I’m in the middle of that relationship, or in the middle of that geographic place.”

Womack recently stopped by the Garden & Gun office to play a Back Porch Session, an intimate stripped-down performance of three originals from the new album. From the buoyant “End of the End of the World” to the darker “All the Trouble,” the songs perfectly encapsulate her vocal and lyrical versatility. Check out an interview with Womack and watch the full session below.

You live in Nashville, where there are plenty of recording studios. Why did you choose to record this album in Texas?

I grew up in East Texas, and when I lived there, I was full of hopes and dreams. I had ideas of what I wanted to do with my life, and it was exciting. Sometimes, the most exciting part of things is the planning. At this point in my career, I am in a new place and a new beginning.


This studio specifically has a lot of history. Did that play any role in the final album?

In Southeast Texas, the music scene is very soulful, and it’s very rich, and I wanted to capture some of that vibe. That studio, which is now SugarHill, was called Gold Star back in the day. Some really cool, soulful music has been made there, and I loved, sonically, the vocal sounds that [George] Jones got. They have some echo chambers there that are underground. I wanted to get that sound on the vocals and, like I said, go someplace where I just feel really good.


You included a lot more of your own songs on this album than you have on previous records.

I don’t really ever stop or start writing. That’s something that goes on all the time—I’m always writing. I’m my worst critic on all the songs, and they sit here and I never record them.  I did choose to put more of my own things on this, at [my husband, the musical producer] Frank [Liddell]’s urging.


I have to ask about “All the Trouble.” That’s a darker number, and you really sense the depth of the song in the way you sing it.

I’ve always been a little bit of an introvert…well, not a little bit—a lot. Those are the people I sing for: the title of the record, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. I’m just drawn to a little bit darker things. It probably has something to do with my East Texas roots. You look at Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Janis Joplin, Lightnin’ Hopkins. These are people that had those same qualities.


Do you have a favorite moment on The Lonely—something that you point out to friends when they first hear it?

I’m really proud of the musicians who played on this record. At the end of “Hollywood,” I love what Jerry Roe, the drummer, and Glenn Worf [the bassist] were playing—the really long outro. It’s controlled recklessness, and I just think it’s beautiful. Most players will either be completely reckless or completely controlled. They found the perfect balance there, and I just think they’re brilliant.


It’s been two decades since you released your first album. In that time, what do you think has been the biggest change in country music?

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the music business in general in the last twenty years. The changes that I’ve seen in the last three or four years, though, have been really positive, in that there are ways to reach an audience other than the conventional ways. It’s almost like the Wild West. With the internet and everything, there’s just so many ways to share music, and I think that’s really cool because we’ve seen artists come about that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Chris Stapleton would not have done what he did when I was first coming out. It was radio or nothing then.


At the same time, what aspects of country music have survived?

My faith in the audience to connect to real music. It really is all about the song. Nashville was built by songwriters, and now a lot of that art and craft has gone away—it’s become more like ditties, almost like jingles and things, that people are putting out. With the changes I’ve seen in the last few years, my hope and faith is renewed in people. There are people out there who just love a real song, a well-crafted song, so that’s something that has endured.