Lee Ann Womack
7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Grand Theatre, 312 W. Main St. in Frankfort. $20, $30, $40. (502) 352-7469. Grandtheatrefrankfort.org.
It seems Lee Ann Womack has revealed a hearty affinity for the Bluegrass throughout her extensive country music career.
Just within the last decade of a hit-making run that extends back to 1997, the Texas-born singer has served as opening act for Rupp Arena shows by two high profile country traditionalists — Alan Jackson (in 2008) and George Strait (in 2010). Then came a run of regional shows in conjunction with the release of her 2014 album The Way I'm Livin', which included a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour (in July 2014) and, finally, a full performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville (in January 2015).
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As Womack prepares for another visit, this one at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, we are reminded of just how skillfully she navigated through a near complete stylistic turnaround within the country music mainstream since her earliest singles (The Fool, You've Got to Talk to Me and I'll Think of a Reason Later) became Top 5 hits. In short, tradition continued to define her singing and most of her recordings during a time when Nashville's appropriation of pop formulas was on the rise.
Eventually, Womack took a stab at country-pop accessibility, too. Her 2002 album Something Worth Leaving Behind sought to satisfy the traditionalist camp as well as those infatuated with the more commercial leanings of country radio. The record has some fine moments, especially in a ghostly reading of Julie Miller's Orphan Train. But commercial and critical reception was mixed. The album charted well, but not its singles.
Womack never fully regained her commercial footing after that. Maybe that was because her return to more traditional fare on subsequent albums was too out of step with country music's still-escalating reliance on pop appeal. Perhaps it was because some of the non-album tunes she cut (the heavily traditional Mama's On a Roll for the Rodney Crowell/Mary Karr collaborative record Kin, the gospel-fueled I Was a Burden with the Blind Boys of Alabama, a cover of Wings' Let Em In on the wonderful Paul McCartney tribute/Women and Cancer benefit album Let Us In Americana and the deliciously wigged out Meds for Buddy Miller's The Majestic Silver Strings) soared even further from the Nashville norm.
All of that brings us to The Way I'm Livin', the record that essentially re-categorized Womack as an Americana artist. The work took her from the major label fortress of MCA Records, which had released all of her previous music, to the folk/bluegrass/roots music turf of Sugar Hill Records.
The record has become one of Womack's most critically lauded works. The country contingency wasn't completely ready to let her go, however. The Way I'm Livin' was nominated last winter for Best Country Album, but lost to Miranda Lambert's Platinum (curiously, Womack's husband, Frank Liddell, served as producer on both records).
Regardless, The Way I'm Livin' stands as possibly Womack's finest recorded hour — a testament to a level of country singing and songcraft that thrives through a collection of predominantly new generation songs by Mindy Smith, Julie Miller, Hayes Carll (the extraordinary Chances Are) and Western Kentucky's own Chris Knight.
"I followed through on my dream to go to Nashville, get a record deal and all that," Womack said prior to her Danville concert last winter. "But the state of things sort of dictated the direction I went. I signed a deal, I committed to making commercial records and I did the best I could. But now I'm in a place where I can do what I was born to do."