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.
She’s still mapping this territory on The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, with help from longtime collaborators like the writers Dale Dodson and Waylon Payne and Womack’s husband, Frank Lidell. If you’ve listened to any country, odds are you’ve encountered the work of Lidell, a versatile producer with sharp ears who has helped craft every Miranda Lambert album in addition to stand-out records for The Pistol Annies, David Nail and Kellie Pickler. Every sound on The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone is in 1080p, pristine even when rugged. The stunning, minute-long outro to “Hollywood” best encapsulates Lidell’s gifts behinds the boards: Wordless backing vocals and a deluge of percussion sluice through a deep pool of guitars, nothing wants for space, and the song comes to a close in a trance-like state of delight.
A couple songs here underserve the production, but only because, with a singer as gifted as Womack, expectations are so high. When she covers “He Called Me Baby” — originally written as “She Called Me Baby” by Harlan Howard, taken onto the country charts by Charlie Rich, and commandeered as a soul hit by Candi Staton, whose version is the definitive one — you’re left wanting more. Womack can handle this sort of tasteful, Muscle-Souls-soul-country in her sleep; the stakes are too low. She brings her usual charisma to a cover of Brent Cobb’s “Shine On Rainy Day,” a lyrical tongue-twister that would make country songwriting legend Tom T. Hall proud, but since Cobb’s version only came out last year, it still feels like his tune. She can’t quite wrestle it away from him.
Womack’s choice of “Shine On Rainy Day” makes perfect sense, though, because it’s a whip-sharp defense of a grand country tradition: Writing songs about the rough side of life. “Boy you sound so lonely,” Cobb’s friend tells him. “All those cheatin’, leavin’ done-me-wrongs — have you ever heard of a happy song?” “Tab’s on me if you think I’m lying,” Cobb’s narrator replies. “But laughin’ ain’t a pleasure ’til you know about cryin’.”
This sentiment is second nature to Womack. Return to “Hollywood,” a hushed, shattering portrait of a couple held together only by force of habit. “Morning cup of coffee, not a single word / And if you do say something, it’s only about work,” Womack sings. “Every time I ask you, you just say we’re good/ Either I’m a fool for asking, or you belong in Hollywood.” Verse by verse, the deadening effect of this romantic ritual becomes more apparent; there’s not a spark of attraction within five miles of these supposed lovers. At the end of the track, Womack’s rhyme scheme breaks down — “We say, ‘good night, I love you,’ we never miss our cue / I ask you if you mean it, you say, ‘yes I do’/ Either I’m a fool for asking, or you belong in Hollywood” — and this small gesture slams home the agony of communication breakdown.
“Mama Lost Her Smile” strikes a similar pose: This time Womack is frustrated because she can’t reconstruct her parents’ past from photographs; the source of her mother’s sadness remains unknown. “You don’t take pictures of the bad times/ We only want to remember all the sunshine,” she sings. It’s a testament to Womack that no one could say the same thing about her.