A few indicators had already surfaced suggesting Lee Ann Womack's country music career was up to speed.
There was the huge 2000 crossover single I Hope You Dance, for starters, which now stands as a signature hit for the Texas-born singer. There have also been blooming artistic relationships with such Americana mavericks as Buddy Miller that expanded her stylistic appeal beyond conventional country confines. Finally, there was the matter of Womack's 2014 album, The Way I'm Livin', a record that broke ranks with commercial Nashville strategies but still wound up with a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album.
But it was last weekend that Womack received a serious reality check regarding just how far her career had come. She found herself swapping verses of Poncho and Lefty with Steve Earle at an all-star tribute to Emmylou Harris. Among the other participants: Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples and a few dozen other notables.
"When I looked over onstage the day before yesterday and Steve was singing a Townes Van Zandt song and I knew that the next verse was mine, it was such a thrill," Womack says. "I couldn't even believe it was happening. I mean, I feel like I've been given a second chance at the career I should have had."
Womack isn't exactly knocking the career she wound up with over the past two decades. After all, a lengthy stay at Decca/MCA/Universal yielded five consecutive Top 5 country albums that led up to 2008's Call Me Crazy. But for a singer reared on staunchly traditional music, addressing the commercial demands of the day's contemporary country star presented more than a little conflict.
"I grew up in East Texas listening to real country music like Buck Owens and George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, which is more swing, and Hank Thompson — all that kind of stuff," Womack says. "So I kind of had an idea of what country music was and what I wanted to do when I grew up. But when I grew up, a lot of that stuff was no longer being made in Nashville.
"I followed through on my dream to go to Nashville, get a record deal and all that. 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. I went as far as I could. But now I'm in a place where I can do what I was born to do. This is kind of a whole new thing for me. It just makes me so happy."
Womack's "whole new thing" is The Way I'm Livin', a record her new label, the bluegrass/Americana-leaning Sugar Hill calls the work of a "progressive traditionalist." What that translates into is a set of sterling songs penned or popularized by Neil Young, Buddy Miller, Roger Miller, Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith and Kentucky's own Chris Knight.
"Chris' song (Send It On Down) is so amazing, Womack says. "I fell in love with it right when I heard it. You know, there are songs that really tear you up when you hear them or take you out of where you are to another place. Then there are songs that just kind of fly by and become hits on radio that don't really have an impact on you. But Send It On Down is just one of those songs where if somebody just sits and listens to it, as I did, it just really moves you. I thought it was one of the greatest songs I ever heard."
The surprise surrounding the Grammy nomination of The Way I'm Livin' isn't so much how such an outsider recording is now up for best country album, but rather the company and competition Womack shares within the category.
Among the artists also nominated are Miranda Lambert, who is performing Friday night at Rupp Arena, and her recent album Platinum. Here is where things get strange. Both The Way I'm Livin' and Platinum share the same producer, Frank Liddell. If you think that's wild, try this. Liddell is Womack's husband.
"I'm up for one Grammy for Album of the Year, but Frank is up for two," Womack says. "You can't help but be thrilled about that."