It’s a bit early for year-in-review reflections, but 2014 will surely go down as an important year in country music history — the one that saw the long-awaited comebacks of two of its most important female artists, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack. Womack’s long-awaited debut on Sugar Hill Records finally hit the market last week.
Womack may be frustratingly unprolific but anyone who listens to The Way I’m Livin’ — her first effort since 2008’s Call Me Crazy — will be hard-pressed to make the case that it wasn’t worth the wait. Whereas Call Me Crazy was a somewhat uneven affair, that is decidedly not the case here. Womack seems to have made good use of her time during her long hiatus from recording; she didn’t write any of the songs on The Way I’m Livin’ but she and her producers Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, and Glenn Worf have compiled an excellent selection of songs from some of Nashville’s best songwriters. In an era where mainstream country music seems to have lost its way, The Way I’m Livin’ could be used as a textbook for a course called “Country Music Done Properly” that ought to be compulsory for every recording artist, producer and label executive in Nashville.
While the sound of The Way I’m Livin’ is no way retro, the songs do harken back to a time, not that long ago, when country music relied on melody rather than beat and the lyrics weren’t afraid to tackle serious topics. Much of The Way I’m Livin’ deals with life’s darker side — from the right-and-wrong struggles of the title track, Brennan Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil”, and Mindy Smith’s Delta-blues flavored “All His Saints”, to the beautiful and understated opening track “Prelude: Fly”, which deals with the death from spinal menangitis of songwriter Brent Cobb’s friend. Womack’s performance here has been compared to some of Dolly Parton’s early work.
Her performance on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are” — my favorite track on the album — has evoked comparisons to another female legend, and although it’s not hard to imagine the treatment that Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette would have given this one, I think it’s just vintage Lee Ann Womack that sounds like something that could have been included on her masterpiece There’s More Where That Came From. The mournful “Send It On Down” sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have sung with gusto, but it’s hard to imagine her or anyone else topping Lee Ann’s version.
The great Bruce Robison contributed two tracks to the project: “Nightwind” and “Not Forgotten You”, which might have been considered the highlights on a weaker ablum, but the material on The Way I’m Livin’ is so consistently excellent, it’s really difficult to pick favorites. I didn’t realize at first that Kenny Price’s “Tommorow Night In Baltimore”, about a man in love with a nightclub dancer, was a remake of a 1971 Roger Miller hit. I’m not sure how I managed not to hear this one until now.
I simply cannot praise this album enough; it is one of those rare collections that is flawless from beginning to end. If you are only going to buy one album this year, make sure it’s this one.
Grade: A +