Reaching all the way back to 1997 to start her show with “Never Again, Again,” Lee Ann Womack set the evening’s tone with a cut that’s about as decidedly country as country gets… which is not to say that she didn’t plan on mixing it up a little. Second song out of the gate and the whole crowd is sharing a ‘come to Jesus’ moment with “All His Saints,” the Mindy Smith-penned country-gospel number from Womack’s latest album, The Way I’m Livin’.
Womack explained her M.O., saying, “I grew up in East Texas listening to real country music… a little too much maybe.” Then, she launched into “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago,” the tune she co-wrote with Dean Dillon off 2005’s There’s More Where That Came From. Coming back to now, “Don’t Listen to the Wind” did its best impersonation of Emmylou Harris’s “All My Tears” while still standing firmly on its own too feet. One after another, Womack unfolded so many contemporary classics, from the gentle shuffle of “Little Past Little Rock” to the bounce and bop of “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good.”
On songs like “Solitary Thinkin’” and “You’ve Got to Talk to Me,” Womack could have easily cut her big, beautiful voice loose, but chose, instead, to keep it close, restrained. This was, after all, the second in a three-night stand in her hometown. Vocal restraint sometimes conveys more, anyway, as evidenced in her tender rendering of Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are,” one of her favorite songs she’s ever cut. Of course, then she set herself up by introducing the next tune as coming from the “Greatest singer ever… and not just in country… George Jones.” And, with that, she made “You’re Still on My Mind” her own, then did the same with “Wayfaring Stranger.” Now, it’s seems a tall task to bring something new to a much-covered, much-beloved traditional like that one. But damn if Womack didn’t slap some soulful gospel vocal riffs on top of the high lonesome harmonies from her band members and bring it all home.
Leading up to “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” Womack shared how, when her husband/producer Frank Liddell brought it home to her so many moons ago, he said, “I got it!” And, as soon as it started playing, she agreed. On this night, as she worked her way through a cut that felt like the kind of country she grew up on, Liddell played air tambourine in the audience. Other than between-song claps and whistles, Liddell’s enthusiasm was about the only visible sign of life in the audience.
All the great songs aside, it’s awfully hard to beat “The Way I’m Livin’” when it comes to sheer flat-out, drum-powered, boldly voiced, in-your-face country. And Womack seemed to have the most fun she’d had all night on that one. She tacked on one more new one, the gloriously heartbroken “Send It on Down,” before winding up the set with “I Hope You Dance” and “Ashes by Now.” Finally, whether through the booze or the grooves, the fans finally started to move a little. They even rose to their feet as Womack departed the stage before returning for an encore of “Last Call,” that wonderfully boozy heartache of a ballad.
It seems like there’s something about the City Winery Nashville room (or the crowds it draws) that dampens the energy of the shows. Womack sang her tail off, supported by a more-than-able band featuring outstanding work by Ethan Ballinger and Zach Runquist, and a bunch of the best songs in town. Still… something was missing. Magic, maybe.