Lee Ann Womack, who’ll turn 51 in August, leapt to the top of the mainstream country radio charts 17 years ago with her crossover hit “I Hope You Dance.” Raised in East Texas, she was surrounded by a much different country swing than the popular radio format that she perhaps inadvertently helped create. She was raised on George Jones and Lefty Frizzell, and she developed great admiration with George Strait, with whom she collaborated several times.
“Texas has its own music scene; it always has,” Womack said. “People down there scratch their heads at what goes on in commercial music. But they don’t really care, because they have a whole network of venues and music outlets that they support. I find that all over the country, though. North Carolina has a big music scene, and they don’t really pay much attention to what goes on in the commercial world either.”
She hopes to reclaim her Texas roots on her forthcoming record, her first since 2014’s The Way I’m Livin.’ She recorded it in Houston, approximately 175 miles from where she was raised in Jacksonville.
“When you think of music in Texas, you think of Austin,” she said. “But Houston really has a very rich history: everything from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Beyonce. I wanted to reflect the stuff that I grew up on, and that was everything from Lefty Frizzell to Lightnin’ Hopkins.”
Birmingham is the first stop on a tour with Patty Griffin: a fellow Texan, woman and musician who has long blurred genre lines and battled industry parameters. But according to Griffin, there was no beneficial reason for the two women to tour together. They are simply great friends who enjoy each other’s company. That, and Griffin is a fan.
“If Tammy [Wynette] and Dolly [Parton] ever could have had a baby together, it’d be Lee Ann [Womack],” said Patty Griffin, who’ll bring along Womack on the road for her upcoming tour, which begins on Saturday in Birmingham. “But I add to that, now. If Tammy and Dolly had a baby together and George [Jones] taught the baby to sing, it’d be Lee Ann Womack,” she adds with a laugh. “That voice is unbelievable. They’re very rare.”
Country radio has a problem right now. A glance at the current Billboard Hot Country Songs Top 20 shows just one female act – Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, who shares her band with two men.
“I’m not sure what’s going on over there now,” Womack said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m out of the game, and even when I was in the game, I wasn’t really in it. I had one foot in it and one foot in another world. I’m not really sure, but it’s pathetic.”
Still, those challenges aren’t something that she felt she needed to warn her daughter, Aubrie Sellers, about. The 25-year-old has made a name for herself behind her 2016 debut, New City Blues.
“This girl grew up in the business,” Womack said. “She grew up on a tour bus and she grew up in publishing companies and recording studios. There was no escaping for her. If it’s in you, it’s in you. I’d never tell her not to go after it because of the way that they treat women, because you can’t deny that if it’s in your heart and your blood and your soul.”
The industry continues to shift, and audiences have become more empowered to find the music that they want to hear. Americana has become an inclusive umbrella for many artists, like Womack who was placed asunder by bro-country’s stranglehold on what the Grammy-winner was told country was when she began doing it 20 years ago. It’s also – for now, anyway – the chart where you’ll most likely see her daughter’s name.
“I’m still doing what I’ve always done,” Womack said. “I’m making country music. Other things shifted, but I’m still doing the same thing. Consumers are rejecting [popular country radio]. They’re not going to stand for that. I think things are going to change with [Aubrie’s] generation.”
Womack has strayed from offering guidance, because, she said, there isn’t much that she can tell Aubrie about the business that she didn’t see firsthand.
“She has a manager, she has a producer, she has a publisher, she has an agent. And I want her to have the best,” said Womack. “I could never be the best manager or the best producer or the best publisher or the best agent. If I’m in her business managing, who’s mom? She needs her mom more than anything.”
An Acoustic Evening with Patty Griffin and Lee Ann Womack comes to The Lyric Theatre on Saturday, July 22. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $37.