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Overnight sensation strikes again

By Joel Bernstein, May 1997

If there is one thing that most "overnight sensations" have in common, it's that they've been working for years to get the opportunity to come from out of nowhere to the top of the charts.

Thirty year old Lee Ann Womack is no exception. Hardly anyone had heard of her before the release of her first Decca single, the remarkably retro sounding - and surprisingly successful - "Never Again Again."

But she's been working on a country music career even longer than she can remember.

With a father who was a country radio DJ in Texas, little miss Womack had a lot of early exposure to the genre at such an early age she can't even recollect it all. "There are supposedly pictures of me with some stars" who had come to her father's station, "but I really can't remember meeting any of them."

One thing she can recall is her father talking about some of the people he interviewed, "I specifically remember one (interview) he did with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. He came home talking about what a great person Dolly was."

Another striking memory is that on occasions when she accompanied her father to his show, she was allowed to help pick out the records he played. "Can you imagine anyone doing that now?" Womack laughs after relating that story.

And the "Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," which ran on television from 1969 to 1972 was another early influence. "I remember watching that as a very little girl and thinking 'I'd like to do that.'"

All those years in between have been spent preparing, in one way or another, to make it in country music. In high school, Womack passed up the senior trip and got her parents to give her a week in Nashville instead. She spent her time soaking up the sights and sounds of the country music industry.

When her parents insisted she at least give college a try, Womack found a school in Texas (South Plains Junior College) offering a degree in country music. In addition to some core classes such as English, there were courses in music theory and history and everything else relating to country music.

But the best part is that Womack got to travel around with the school's country band and got college credit for it to boot.

Womack transferred to the music business program at Nashville's Belmont University, whose alumni include Trisha Yearwood. Womack worked for a year as an intern at MCA. (The experience must have agreed with her, because many years later, when her publishing company arranged a showcase for her to try to get her a recording contract, Womack irked them by insisting that she would only sign with MCA or its Decca subsidiary.).

Then came a detour, as Womack got married and had a baby. Eventually, she got back into the business doing demos and developing her own songwriting. She signed to Tree Music, definitely in the major leagues of Nashville publishing.

Although only one of Womack's own compositions made it onto her own album, but that track "Am I The Only Thing That You've Done Wrong," is one of the disc's highlights. (One of its co-writers is her former husband, Jason Sellers).

Womack also has a song on the next Ricky Skaggs album. Another track she co-wrote with the legendary Bill Anderson will make it onto his upcoming album. She found Anderson very impressive. "He's had such a career already, but he's down there hustling all the time. He's not sitting around crying about not getting any play."

Womack additionally did a lot showcase performances around town (most, including a recent one at the Country Radio Seminar with just an upright bass, an acoustic guitar and a snare drum.). Considering her own songwriting skills as well as her love for old country music, it's surprising that neither is much represented on Womack's debut album. Womack had an active role in choosing the songs and says "I did listen to some older things I was considering I'm sure sooner or later I'll do some."

"I looked for a producer who could take that (traditional) sound and give it a contemporary flair to make it palatable for today. I think he did a wonderful job."

"He" is Mark Wright, best known for producing another Decca artist, Mark Chesnutt (who has a duet with Womack on her album). And "contemporary flair" seems to be a euphemism for "lots and lots of drums," a sound that will make a few (though definitely a minority) tracks on Womack's album difficult to take for country purists despite Womack's own classic-sounding vocals.

Given Womack's acknowledged love of the traditional sound, how does she feel about the heavy drumming on most of today's HNC records, including her own. "I kind of left that up to the producer. If it sounds way too different, they're afraid to give it a chance." (This ignores the fact that her initial hit really does not have that contemporary drum sound).

But asked if things might change if she becomes a big enough star to have more clout on future albums, Womack says "don't be surprised if I go to a more traditional sound."

She is now trying to deal with sudden success. "Overwhelmed is a good word for it," she says as we talk to her late in a day she has devoted entirely to media interviews. "It's taken off faster than I expected."

She has just started putting together a band, which would be her first since college and signed with a booking agency. She expects to do a mix of "opening act" gigs and club dates. The band will make its debut at Fan Fair and be in full swing by June.

Though this band, unlike the little things she played around Nashville with, will have a modern sound, Womack does expect to mix some old songs into her shows.

Bob Wills and Ray Price are two longtime favorites, and songs she'd like to do include the former's "Misery" and the latter's "My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You" and "Who'll Be The First." Glen Campbell and Dean Martin are two other singers for whom she admits major fandom.

Her father, who is no longer working in radio, remains an important influence on Womack's career. "He's vocal to me about song selection. My dad is very interested in what a song has to say. Sometimes he'll tell me to go back and listen to something again if I've passed on it..." He also videotaped an introduction to Womack's appearance at the Country Radio Seminar, which was her first exposure to most of the industry.

Womack's new stardom is complicated by her being a single mother. "It makes things harder and tougher, but that's the same for all single mothers. It's going to be tougher for me than it has been. Throwing in this hectic schedule will require better (time) management. My cousin just moved in to act as a nanny, but things are changing so fast for me we haven't had time to get into a routine." With the kind of voice many country fans have been pining for, a love for the music and an unusually high understanding of the industry, Lee Ann Womack would seem to be one of the few artists with the potential to please the entire spectrum of country fandom.