Lee Ann Womack, the Grammy-winning country singer, says her latest album grew out of a question: What kind of music would she make if she weren't concerned with marketing or radio play or what her peers are doing?
On "The Way I'm Livin'," her first record since 2008, the answer is frank, small-scale songs about people in tough spots: the lonely drinker killing a quart by herself in "Send It on Down," or the woman in "Chances Are" who "took the wrong turn every time I had a turn to take."
The sound is darker and more introspective than the high-powered party tunes Nashville pumps out these days. And it's less polished than "I Hope You Dance," the glossy pop-crossover ballad Womack drove to the top of the charts in 2000.
"I'm at a point now where I've accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish," the singer said recently. "What I wanted to do this time was just make real music and not think about anything else."
Yet if Womack was taking a step away from the establishment, the establishment hasn't exactly let Womack go. At this year's Grammy ceremony, scheduled for Feb. 8, the singer could take home her second award with a win for best country album. "The Way I'm Livin'" is nominated against higher-profile mainstream hits by Eric Church, Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley.
What's more, listening to the record illustrates the quiet influence Womack, 48, has had on a younger generation of singers — women like Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark, whose work updates country tradition in much the same way Womack did in the late '90s and early '00s.
Back then she was one of the genre's biggest stars, a powerful voice blanketing country radio with catchy singles alongside Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Even at its slickest, though, Womack's music always looked to the foundational artists she grew up listening to as the daughter of a radio DJ in a small town in East Texas.
"It kind of surprises me when people say, 'Oh, she's returning to her roots,'" Womack said of "The Way I'm Livin'," which came out to strong reviews in September. In an interview during a recent visit to Los Angeles, the singer pointed out that many of the songwriters featured on the new album, such as Julie Miller and Bruce Robison, are people she's worked with throughout her career.
Indeed, it was the same executive responsible for overseeing her earlier records — former Universal Music Group Nashville chief Luke Lewis — who asked the question that inspired "The Way I'm Livin'."
Following 2008's elaborately arranged "Call Me Crazy," Lewis suggested that Womack work on an album with her husband, Frank Liddell, a Nashville producer known for his collaborations with Lambert and Kellie Pickler.
"We didn't have any pressure on us," said Liddell, who'd produced several songs by his wife but never an entire album. "Nobody was looking for a single, so we just recorded things we liked."
Once they'd selected the tunes — among them Mindy Smith's "All His Saints" and Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend" — Liddell put together a studio band, and had Womack sing while the musicians played. That's a rarity in modern Nashville, where stars typically lay down their vocals after a song's instrumental backing has been recorded with help from a stand-in singer. (One of Womack's two daughters has worked as a stand-in, she said, as did Womack herself in her early years.)
But the unconventional approach was crucial, said Liddell, to providing the lived-in quality he and Womack were after.
In an industry shake-up, Lewis later left Universal before the album was released. Womack went too but was allowed to keep her music and shop it around to other labels — another exception in an industry notorious for extended contract disputes.
Eventually she signed with Sugar Hill, a small independent with a catalog that includes releases by Nickel Creek and Sarah Jarosz, as well as a series of acclaimed bluegrass albums by one of Womack's idols, Dolly Parton.
"When Lee Ann's manager gave us the record, we all flipped over it," said Sugar Hill's general manager, Cliff O'Sullivan. "It's pretty much right in our bull's-eye."
Womack said she was attracted to the label's standing "outside the Nashville machine," a position that might've unsettled a veteran performer wary of fading from view. After years of near-constant promotion, though, the singer said she's no longer fixated on "being in the spotlight all the time."
"I can pick up my guitar at home and sit and play, and I get a certain satisfaction from that," she said.
What does she play when no one's listening?
"Up in my room just now I was playing 'Long Black Veil,'" she replied, referring to the country standard made famous by Lefty Frizzell.
Womack isn't forgoing opportunities to bring attention to her new album, which so far has sold only a fraction of what her major-label records did. Last year she taped an episode of CMT's "Crossroads" with John Legend. And she spent part of Thanksgiving performing the national anthem before an NFL game at AT&T Stadium in Texas.
Yet the motivating idea isn't "to use her music to prop up some apparent celebrity," Liddell said. "The reality is that my wife just wants to sing."
And Womack wants to sing whatever she wants — lush love songs, tough drinking songs, one of Legend's light pop-soul confections — in spite of the prevailing trends in Nashville.
"When I started out, I said I want to be like Willie Nelson," she recalled. "He's not a certain style or a certain genre; he doesn't make you think of any one thing. He's just Willie." Womack laughed.
"But, you know, he's 80-something years old. It takes awhile."