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How Lee Ann Womack returned to her roots

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Lee Ann Womack made a big return to country music with her September full-length, The Way I’m Livin’. The Grammy-nominated collection not only marked the end of a fairly long gap between new music (her most recent release was the best-of compilation Icon in 2011; her last collection of original material came in 2008) but also, as she says, the first time in her long career that she made an album that was purely “whatever the hell I wanted to do.” 

Which is to say, Livin’ is light on pop-crossover fare and production, and heavy on classic storytelling tunes weaved with her signature, filigree vocal. Produced by her husband, Frank Liddell, Womack says she was warned that her first album in seven years would likely not be her biggest in terms of radio play or hard sales. “My husband told me, ‘I hope you understand Lee Ann, this is going to be tough. You’re going to take a big step back in order to have a longer career,'” she remembers. “And it has been, in ways, a step back. But in other ways I can also see the end goal, to have a long career that I’m happy with and am comfortable with.” 

The video for the album’s title track is nominated for Female Video of the Year at tonight’s CMT Awards, which airs on the network at 8p.m. EST and is hosted by Erin Andrews and Britney Snow. It’s one of her two potential wins, since her duet with John Legend, “You & I (Nobody In The World)” from their CMT Crossroads episode, is also up for Performance of the Year.

EW caught up with the fantastically frank owner of one of country music’s most interesting catalogs to look back on her seven-album career and to discuss working with Legend, why she doesn’t like filming music videos, and why she’s finished cowing to industry pressures. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I really enjoyed your pairing with John Legend for Crossroads. Had you ever met him before?

Lee Ann WomackI hadn’t. We had been talking for years about who I might do a Crossroads with­ [but] I never could find anybody I wanted to do it with. John Hamlin at CMT called me up and obviously I’d heard the name but I wasn’t real familiar. I went and listened to his music and I knew immediately that he was right—oh my goodness, he was such a joy to work with. When we got in there for rehearsal it was so smooth. It was like we knew each other already, in a musical sense. His talent runs so much deeper than, “I grew up singing into a hair brush in my room.” It comes from way, way down deep inside. With him, it’s not just emotional. He brings this intellectual level to music. It was awesome to learn from someone like that.

During the episode, you both discussed how both country music and R&B had gotten away from their roots over the years. He mentioned that R&B had moved towards dance music and you pointed out how much pop has found its way into country. With recent releases by Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton getting such positive reception, do you feel like things are swinging back the other way?

I think I feel the beginnings of it. I think I can see it coming, but I don’t know that it’s happening yet. There is definitely something going on with the divisive attitudes around here about how country music is or should be and how the industry should approach things—all of that. I feel like a change is coming. 

There’s obviously always the conversation with your career in that regard as well—leaning towards pop in the early 2000s and then returning to traditional country music thereafter. How you look back on I Hope You Dance and Something Worth Leaving Behind now?

It’s funny because “I Hope You Dance” is one of the biggest pop crossover songs that we’ve had in this industry but on that record—I sequenced the record myself—the first and last songs are “The Healing Kind” which is written by Ronnie Bowman, a bluegrass writer here in town. And then the last song on the record was “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good” which I cut with all bluegrass instruments as well. So it’s funny that people just pick up on “I Hope You Dance” and don’t really understand there was all this rootsy music on this record.

Does your motivation for every album change after so many or is there always that same one thing you’re looking for?

You overthink things as an artist when you’re trying to gain commercial success—especially when you throw radio in the mix and you’re trying to please them and major labels in town. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some moments where I’d bend and accommodate things other than just what I love. With [Way I’m Livin’] I threw all that out the window. And Frank, my husband, told me, “I hope you understand Lee Ann, this is going to be tough. You’re going to take a big step back in order to have a longer career.”

And it has been, in ways, a step back. But in other ways I can see the end goal—to have a long career that I’m happy with and am comfortable with. I don’t want to be chasing things. Some people enjoy that game, but I enjoy sitting down in my living room and playing and singing. I get a certain satisfaction just from that. And I enjoy music. And I wanted to do whatever the hell I wanted to do, basically. Those are the kinds of things when we were making this record. It really has been starting completely over in many ways. But sometimes that’s the most fun an artist has. It’s very exciting. 

You’re nominated for Female Video of the Year. Are music videos a part of the music industry you enjoy? 

Nope [laughs]. I’m not one of those pretty girls. It’s just not my…it’s not what I do best. I just enjoy singing. In many ways video killed the radio and that’s a whole other article but…Roger Pistol, this was his idea. We went to him because he had done a Chris Knight video I had loved. And he’s from Texas and I just thought he would get it. He came back with the concept and we said yes. 

You’ve performed at the Nobel Peace Prize concert, the Republican National Convention, Maya Angelou’s service, tons of awards shows—done collabs with Willie Nelson and other amazing, storied artists. Does one stick out in your mind as being most memorable? 

Oh man. A lot of those things, the bigger they are, and the less intimate they are it just becomes a wall. It’s harder to play the small rooms. One of my favorite moments of my career was when it was just Willie Nelson and I in the vocal booth. Nobody else got to share that time—it’s just a personal memory. A lot of times I just feel like I’m a little, tiny spoke in the wheel in those things. It’s harder to sing for your peers, but I love it. 

The CMT Awards aren’t your only active nominations. You’re also leading the Americana Music Awards, nominated for Album of the Year and Artist of the Year. How did it feel when you heard about those?

Nobody was more surprised than my team and me. Maybe I shouldn’t have been but it’s just that maybe I’m not as much of an outsider as I felt like. I cannot tell you the thrill that I feel over that. Look at the other people I’m nominated with! That is unbelievable to me. It means the world to me. We all had our mouths hanging open. We weren’t together, because we didn’t expect it, but we were all calling and texting each other going, “What in the world?!”

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