Lee Ann Womack: The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone

Lee Ann Womack
The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone
(ATO)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

It took a long six years, and a label switch, between Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 Call Me Crazy and her next release, 2014’s superb The Way I’m Livin’. That layoff resulted in Womack re-evaluating her sound; stripping it down and shifting to murkier, more rootsy material with covers from writers like Neil Young, Hayes Carll and Mindy Smith. Not coincidentally she employed noted producer Frank Liddell (also her husband) to help craft this redefined approach. Now, after another label change, Womack lands on indie powerhouse ATO for its follow-up.

While Womack continues to hone darker territory, she contributes to the songwriting this time, co-composing six of the 14 tracks. Perhaps just as important was a move from her Nashville home to Houston to record, working in that city’s famed Gold Star studio (now named SugarHill), a revered location opened in 1941. Legendary early music from Willie Nelson and George Jones was laid down there and Womack, who closes this set with a cover of Jones’ gospel rockabilly number “Take the Devil Out of Me,” looked to capture some of the country soul that sprang from the setting. 

Not that the singer was exactly deficient in the soulful singing department. Still, the way her smooth voice wraps around the occasionally tougher arrangements of these 14 songs reveals their heartbreak in more edgy material. That’s especially true on the swampy opening “All the Trouble,” complete with creepy, demonic backing vocals. Surely the most menacing track Womack has recorded, it sets the stage for the dimmer approach she favors here. Even when the accompaniment is slightly more polished as on the pedal steel-enhanced title track, Womack’s sweetly emotional vocals imbue it with the same sort of melancholy Jones effortlessly trafficked in.

Womack covers two songs by singer-songwriter Brent Cobb. The highlight is “Shine On Rainy Day” (which Cobb co-wrote with Andrew Combs), a beautiful slice of folk country with affecting lyrics, a stunning guitar solo and an arrangement that makes this one of the few contemporary covers that’s (slightly) better than the original. The singer wrings all the sorrow in the lyrics with her subdued, emotional performance and low boil backing. She also digs back half a century to dip into the iconic murder/execution ballad “Long Black Veil,” letting her vocals express the inherent sadness and holding her own with stripped-down accompaniment on a tune covered by legends like Johnny Cash and The Band.

In contrast, the emotionally laced “Hollywood” is a smooth, countrypolitan Womack co-write where she accuses her significant other of being a great actor for pretending to be happy in a clearly crumbling marriage.

There are a few lighter lyrical moments as on the acoustic, bittersweet “End of the End of the World” (perhaps a play on the Skeeter Davis classic), but generally the album’s title captures the forlorn vibe exuded by the majority of the material. Womack is in terrific voice throughout, the songs — including her co-writes — are top notch and with Lidell’s sympathetic backing and production, it’s hard to imagine how anything could be improved. It’s a late-breaking short list nominee for 2017’s album of the year.

This article has been amended from its original version.