Entertainment

Lee Ann Womack gets back in the saddle

John Law

By John Law, Niagara Falls Review

A rejuvenated Lee Ann Womack heads to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Jan. 17. PHOTO: Submitted

A rejuvenated Lee Ann Womack heads to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Jan. 17. PHOTO: Submitted

“When you come close to sellin’ out, reconsider,” Lee Ann Womack sang in her biggest hit, 2000’s I Hope You Dance.

It would be advice she took to heart in recent years. Retreating from what she heard on the radio - and her own pop/country past - Womack went old school country on her last album, 2014’s The Way I’m Livin’.

Stripped down songs. Acoustic guitars. Tunes you can imagine Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette singing in the early ‘70s.

Result? Womack isn’t heard much on country radio these days, but she’s never been happier.

“I’m a million times happier than I ever was,” beams the Jacksonville-born singer on the line from Brampton, the third stop of a Canadian tour which brings her to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines Jan. 17.

“It’s just, I’m a totally different person. In every way. Music is at the core of everything I do, so it was very frustrating to not be doing what made me happy.”

What makes Womack happy, for now, is not pretending to be the next Shania Twain. That was the landscape when she emerged in 1997, the same year Twain’s blockbuster album Come On Over permanently blurred the lines between rock, pop and country.

With her emotional singing and mix of modern and contemporary sounds, Womack had some Top 10 hits on country radio before scoring a huge crossover with I Hope You Dance, which won a Grammy for Best Country Song. Its life-affirming message and potent vocals made it one of the year’s stand-out singles, and still gets a rousing reception in concert.

“I was singing it last night, and just in the few rows I could actually see…several pockets of people are holding hands and crying,” she says. “And I became emotional myself, because when you think about making music that affects people’s lives or helps them through a bad time, that’s a bonus.”

While Womack’s follow-up album, 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind, reached #2 on Billboard’s country charts, it didn’t boast a big single and received some bruising reviews. Womack later told the Dallas Morning News she “didn’t have much fun” making it, and “over-thought everything on that record.”

Worse, as she watched Twain sell more than 20 million copies of Come On Over in the U.S. alone, she started feeling more distant from the modern country scene.

“I grew up in Texas, where so much country music was born,” she says. “Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and Ray Price and George Jones and George Strait…a lot of great country music. I was always irritated about the fact country was no longer country.”

Womack would make two more studio albums before taking a six-year hiatus, re-emerging in 2014 with bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records. The Way I’m Livin’ earned her the strongest reviews of her career, with Womack embracing the outlaw country of the ‘70s she grew up with.

“I’m not a fan of what I hear on the radio,” she says. “It has nothing to do with who I am, or where I came from, or the music that’s in me. I did it for awhile, I had some great success with it, but there’s a certain thing that’s inside me I just have to do.

“Not just country, but any radio. Commercial stuff. I never have been into commercial anything. I like independent films, I like all kind of things off the beaten path. It’s just nice to be living a life and having a career that’s very honest about who I am and where I come from.”

Being a team player, Womack tried doing what her label expected when they signed her 21 years ago, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“I was contracted to make commercial music - that’s what the contract says - so I tried to do my best and give them what they needed. And they tried to do their best and give me what I needed, and we had a really good run for a long time.

“But when that ran out, when I had fulfilled that contract, it was a huge, huge relief for me.”

Now, instead of avoiding songs from her early years, Womack enjoys singing them more ever.

“A lot better now than when I was in the heat of it,” she says. “Because when I was in the heat of it it seemed like it was never going to end, I was never going to get to grow up musically.

“Now, I can do it and be fine with it and enjoy it like the audience enjoys it. Because I know a lot of that is behind me.”

jlaw@postmedia.com

WHO: Lee Ann Womack

WHERE: FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre; 250 St. Paul Street; St. Catharines

WHEN: Jan. 17, 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $65 ($95 VIP Seats) www.firstontario.pac