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Stray Tuned

On Her New Album, Lee Ann Womack Resurrects the Old-Fashioned Cheating Song

HONKY TONK ANGEL: Lee Ann Womack leaves crossover diva-dom behind on her new album.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/13/2005

Almost no one defends adultery, and yet lots of folks love to hear a good cheating song. A song such as Merle Haggard’s “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” or Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” allows us to view our own struggle through someone else’s story.

But the therapy of a good cheating song is increasingly hard to find in pop music these days as country is taken over by sin-free Christian homilies and as R&B is taken over by marriage-free gangster fantasies. That’s why Lee Ann Womack’s new album, There’s More Where That Came From (MCA), is so welcome. Womack is one of the finest singers in Nashville today, and she applies her lustrous, drawling soprano and her dramatic instinct to a fistful of new cheating songs as good as anything Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn sang in the past.

“I love that kind of music,” Womack says. “It’s like watching a soap opera. Even if you don’t live like that, you like watching it. Those were the records my dad played—real country music. These new songs reminded me of those things I listened to when I was younger. I can’t say for sure that there’s a place for cheating songs in this century, but I think there is. Life doesn’t really change that much—we deal with a lot of the same things.”

The album announces itself with three double-stop fiddle notes that descend into the title song and the slightly embarrassed confession that “in that motel room all my senses came to life.” The song’s narrator spent the afternoon in the room with someone who wasn’t her husband, and the tingle still lingers in Womack’s voice. The song itself, by Chris Stapleton and Chris Dubois, is concise and evocative, but it’s the vocal that lifts it to greatness, for Womack captures both the glow and the guilt of sinful pleasure.

She never resorts to the heavy-handed obviousness of a Shania Twain or Gretchen Wilson; Womack is the rare artist who accommodates paradox in a four-minute country single. When she prays on the bridge for God to “get this cheating off my mind,” there’s a genuine anguish in her rising melody. But when she gets that inevitable phone call from her lover, she comes back to earth with a helpless sigh signaling that her conscience is no match for her desire.

Just as good is the album’s first single, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” a ballad about that moment when you’re trying to decide whether to sleep with your ex-spouse. As Womack sings about the argument going on in her head, as she lists all the reasons for and against giving in to temptation, you can hear her voice slowly lose its edge and start to swoon as if she had captured the sound of clouded judgment. To make things weirder, that’s her ex-husband, Jason Sellers, singing the harmonies on the chorus.

“One’s a Couple” is a boozy honky-tonk song about a woman waving off the wolves in a bar, telling them that she’s drinking with the memory of her lover. “He Oughta Know That by Now” is a string-band confession of a neglected wife who reluctantly chooses divorce after her workaholic husband ignores her warnings. “Stubborn (Psalm 151)” is a Don Schlitz ballad about wrestling with one’s demons in an otherwise empty room. Best of all is “Painless,” a stunning ballad about a husband confessing his affair over the dirty dishes in the kitchen and apologizing not quite convincingly.

There’s More Where That Came From would be an astonishing album under any circumstances, but it’s even more surprising given the arc of Womack’s career. She grew up in the small East Texas town of Jacksonville, the daughter of a country-music DJ. In 1984, at the age of 18, she packed up her Ford Stepside pickup and headed for Nashville. But it was a long slog through low-paying jobs, marriage, motherhood, divorce, and endless demo sessions before she released her 1997 self-titled debut.

That album and its follow-up, 1998’s Some Things I Know, revealed a classic hard-country voice, a honky-tonk soprano so special that it broke through the anti-country tendencies of country radio to score two No. 2 singles off each album—“You’ve Got to Talk to Me,” “The Fool,” “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” and “A Little Past Little Rock.”

But everything changed with 2000’s I Hope You Dance. The title track became one of those songs, like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Lean on Me,” that erases musical boundaries and becomes a staple of weddings and graduations. It topped the country and adult-contemporary charts; it was a No. 14 pop single, and it won her awards from the Country Music Association, the Grammys, and the Country Music Critics Poll.

It was a terrific song and deserved its success, but it tempted Womack away from her strengths and into a misguided grasp at diva-dom. The result was 2002’s overproduced and underwritten Something Worth Leaving Behind, which felt calculated in all the wrong ways. There’s More Where That Came From represents a 180-degree turn away from the pop-diva approach.

“I promised myself with this record that I wouldn’t overthink things,” she admits. “I’ve done that in the past. I’ve worried too much about what radio would like and what would go over in the live shows. I didn’t enjoy that process. With this record, I wanted to be sure I was true to the music. These were traditional country songs, and I wanted them to sound the way country music used to sound. I knew a hard-country record would be a hard sell on radio in this day and age, but I knew, if nothing else, that I would have a good time making it.”

Womack’s renewed willingness to test the limits of commercial country is fueled by her marriage to Frank Liddell, a producer and publisher for such left-field acts as Jim Lauderdale and Bruce Robison. Liddell has coaxed her out of her East Texas background to try such progressive singer/songwriters as Robison, Rodney Crowell, and Buddy Miller. Womack has even performed with Miller at the CMA Awards and at South by Southwest.

“Since I married Frank, he’s introduced me to a lot of that stuff,” she says. “He turned me on to Buddy Miller, and I turned him on Billy Sherrill. It’s not that he hadn’t heard Billy Sherrill before, but living with me he heard a lot more of it and learned to dissect it. It doesn’t really matter to me if music is traditional or progressive, as long as it’s right. That’s why I go from one thing to another—that’s why my records are different one after the other.

“I’ve picked up a lot of new music along the way, but there’s still nothing I like better than Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton or a good cheating song. That’s what I grew up on. If you eat a lot of fried food growing up, that’s what you’re going to like when you’re older.”

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