"When Lee Ann Womack was a little girl in Texas, helping her mother clean house on Saturday as they listened to country music on the radio, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life. And not being able to do it right then broke her heart. "I was so sad to have to be so far away from the music business, when I wanted to be right in the middle of it-even when I was a little kid," she recalls. "That played into the way I sang, the kind of music I listened to, the voices I loved and was drawn to-like Tammy Wynette or George Jones."
Lee Ann's youthful sadness is gone now, yet the lessons she learned from Tammy, George and other country-to-the-bone icons who captivated her as a child come through loud and clear on Call Me Crazy, her seventh and most impressive outing to date in a career full of great music. Simply put, the collection of songs, the exquisite production and the sheer artistry of Lee Ann's straight-from-the-heart vocals-whether powerful, vulnerable, achingly sad or joyful-combine to make this one stunning album.
But it shouldn't be surprising that Crazy is Lee Ann's best work ever. She co-wrote "New Again," "Have You Seen That Girl," "If These Walls Could Talk" and "Everything But Quits," four songs that, according to the project's legendary producer, Tony Brown, "set the standard" for the lyric writing on the remainder of the 12-song CD. Tony, George Strait's long-time producer, brought in most of the musicians who've played on George's records through the years, adding yet another layer of comfort-and excellence-to the studio environment. And it shows.
From the opening strains of "Last Call," Crazy's debut single, it's apparent this is music lovingly created by an artist who is reveling in what she was born to do. The song about an alcohol-induced bar stool phone call that may end up being not only the last call but the last straw is quintessential Lee Ann. It's a reminder of all the great performances that came before-"I May Hate Myself In The Morning," "The Fool" and "I Hope You Dance" to name a few-and an enticing promise of what's to come. It says simply, "This is Lee Ann Womack. This is country music."
Built on a role reversal of sorts, "Solitary Thinkin'" also features an unanswered phone call from a bar after last call. But this one is from a woman trying to get through her problems-and her blues-with the aid of a double barrel whiskey. "Being such a fan of real country music, I do love the imagery of a smoky bar," admits Lee Ann. "Now I'm not gonna go sit in a bar by myself, but there have been times, after everybody's gone to bed, I'll just sit here at the bar in the kitchen, have a cocktail and listen to my George Jones stuff, and I love it."
And the Possum would be proud of the way Lee Ann digs down deep to tap into the resignation-filled "Either Way"-Baby you can go or you can stay/I won't love you either way-a song that finds a couple still putting on the public façade of happiness while sleeping in separate rooms and only communicating when it's time to pay the bills. No feeling, just numbness. Pure country.
And in the mesmerizing drone of "The Bees" (yes, biology fans, drones are male bees), Lee Ann strikes the perfect balance between the often sad lyrical content-Sometimes it's a bitter taste/ For a motherless child so out of place-and the gorgeous imagery in the song. Aided by the heavenly harmonies of Lee Ann's buddy, Keith Urban-"he came in and just nailed his performance"-the song is an absolute highlight of Crazy, even though its uniqueness might have scared another artist away. But not Lee Ann.
"It is very, very important for me to take chances on different songs that really appeal to me," she declares. "I have to do that. Otherwise, I might as well go sell real estate or do something totally, totally different."
While Lee Ann loves sinking her teeth, and her heart, into sad country songs, she has a harder time finding positive songs she likes. But there are some gems on Crazy.
Lee Ann admits being drawn to the joyful "I Found It In You" because of its simplicity and because it resonated with where she was in her own life at the time. "It's not profound or anything'" she says, "but the idea that some people find inspiration in a bottle, some people find it workin' for the man, but I found it in you is just so simple. I loved it."
And when she had the idea for "New Again," it was inspired by her good friend George Strait and how he's always been able to sing classic Bob Wills or Ray Price songs and make them new again. But it didn't end there for Lee Ann, who admits being fascinated by people who, like her mom recovering old pillows, can make something old new again. "And, of course, part of the song is about Frank [Lidell, her husband] and about me," she reveals. "I was divorced with a kid. The whole thing was just new again, when we got together and married and had our own child. I'd been feeling cast aside, like damaged goods, and he came along and made everything new again."
Even on first listen, Lee Ann's duet with Strait on "Everything But Quits" feels like a song you've known and sung along with for years. But that's what you get when you put two great vocalists with a lyric like: We've said some things that hurt/But love's always had the last word/We've called it everything but quits. There's no competition, no ego, just consummate artists who respect each other to the core, singing a great country song. It doesn't get better.
And in the aching sadness of "Have You Seen That Girl," Lee Ann opened her heart to write about the times she's lost her way and had to rely on those around her to notice it first and help her get back on the right path until she could reconnect with the girl that everybody says I used to be. It's a beautifully vulnerable vocal performance on a record full of them.
While she didn't write it, "The Story Of My Life" is a very special song to Lee Ann. She'd had it for quite a while, but never felt her life experience was right to sing it-until now. But it's worth the wait. With the inspirational power of "I Hope You Dance," the uplifting song is made even stronger through the family connection of background vocal performances by Lee Ann's ex-husband, Jason Sellers, and their 17-year-old daughter, Aubrie. Simply beautiful.
Through all the emotional explorations of the human condition on Crazy-from lonely bars and joyful hearts right down to the playful cover photo that was never intended to be the cover-the common thread is Lee Ann's commitment to give everything she has as an artist and a passionate lover of real country music.
She is justifiably proud of Crazy. And she's not alone.
"Out of all the records I've done-and I've done A LOT," says Brown, "this is gonna be one of my proudest moments."
Who are we to argue with Tony Brown?