The gut punch comes early on Lee Ann Womack’s new album, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, in the form of a masterfully woebegone couplet that leaves you gasping for breath. “Nobody writes goodbye notes and takes off to God-only-knows on trains anymore,” Womack sings on the record’s dismal, throbbing title track. “And to tell you the truth,” she adds, “I don’t really see much use in walking the floor.”
She’s reckoning with country’s history here — referencing oldies like Ernest Tubb’s “Walking The Floor” — and adding to it all at once. As Womack searches for the relevance of vintage country standards in a modern world filled with strip malls and Toyota Camrys, she ends up making an incisive argument for the universal appeal of her genre. “I guess in some way,” she concludes, “Every heartache is like an old Hank Williams song.”
Womack has routinely delivered these country music insights over the course of a two-decade career. When she debuted twenty years ago, her allegiance was crystal clear — first single “Never Again, Again” would have fit on a jukebox in 1973. Country has shifted around her, of course. In 1997, “Never Again, Again” got played on the radio, but Womack hasn’t had a regular airwave presence in over a decade. (The lone exception being “Last Call,” a 2008 single co-written by a then-rising writer named Shane McAnally.)
Though Womack has spoken about the restrictive world of major label country — she left MCA Nashville after 2008’s Call Me Crazy — in truth it never seemed to hold her back. The genre modernized aggressively, but Womack didn’t give a damn, and she was talented and tenacious enough to carry on making sterling records indebted to ’60s and ’70s hard country regardless of whatever new sounds major labels were chasing.
If you pick up just one of her albums, make it There’s More Where That Came From, but the quality of Womack’s output rarely flags and the topics don’t change much. She inhabits a world of cheating hearts and drunken minds, where every relationship is a cage to escape from and every choice is between bad and worse.