“The scaffold is high and eternity near.”
That bone-chilling line from “Long Black Veil” — the 1959 country ballad about a noble cad who chooses execution rather than reveal that he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife — is a long way from Lee Ann Womack’s 2000 mainstream country hit “I Hope You Dance.” But it fits right in with her newfound progressive approach to country music, a tactic that doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life.
Womack has included a gripping, dirge-like cover of “Long Black Veil,” a major hit for Johnny Cash, on her latest album, “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone” (Ato). The album, released in October, is Womack’s second since her reemergence as an Americana artist following her 2008 departure from MCA Nashville, which ended a rocky relationship with that label. The album is filled with such brooding, gritty, sometimes ominous, sometimes hopeful ballads as “He Called Me Baby,” “End of the End of the World,” “Bottom of the Barrel” and “Someone Else’s Heartache.”
Last month, Nashville Scene ranked the album as No. 3 on its influential 18th annual Country Music Critics’ Poll — and Womack earned top honors as Best Female Country Singer. Now, Womack brings her Bottom of the Barrel Tour to the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma on Feb. 23.
In some ways, Womack has been on this path throughout her 20-year recording career.
“I guess I was sort of having a pity party,” she has said of the brooding “Am I the Only Thing That You’ve Done Wrong,” the only song she co-wrote on her 1997 self-titled debut. In a recent interview with Billboard, Womack remembered its inspiration perfectly. Her first husband, fellow singer-songwriter Jason Sellers, was out on the road with Ricky Skaggs, and she was sitting at home, “big and pregnant,” working at a daycare while Sellers toured the world. “It felt like every time I turned the TV on, he was there,” she recalled.
Ironically, Sellers became one of the song’s co-writers.
“I think I probably just told him the hook and he goes, ‘Damn, that’s a good hook, let’s write it,’” she added, laughing. “It’s always the music first in my life.”
Womack divorced Sellers in 1996. Three years later, she married ace producer Frank Liddel, who has been instrumental in the careers of Miranda Lambert and the Pistol Annies, a Lambert side project.
Womack, a native Texan, has been steeped in country music since she was a kid. She attended South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas, the first school in the nation to offer a degree in country music. She later studied business at Belmont University in Nashville and earned an internship at MCA Records in Nashville. After an audition with MCA chairman Bruce Hinton, Womack signed a contract with Decca Records.
Her 1997 eponymous debut showcased her embrace of country ballads and honky-tonk, and her voice immediately earned the attention of critics. (She) “has a voice that can make the mediocre sound appealing,” Thom Owens wrote in the All Music Guide.
But, over time, things soured between Womack and MCA.
“For the better part of my career, I was on a label that was trying to get airplay on country radio, and radio wasn’t playing country music,” Womack told Nashville Scene. “I’m not sure why that happened, but it was a frustrating, painful time for me. So I’ve had to create my own space where I can just make the music I want to make and let the chips fall where they may.”
After a seven-year layoff, following her 2008 MCA swan song, “Call Me Crazy,” Womack returned with 2014’s “The Way I’m Livin’” (Sugar Hill). The sparsely arranged, rootsy recording established Womack as a major Americana artist and won praise from hipsters and the East-Coast elite bible “Esquire,” which ranked “Livin’” as the only country album on the posh magazine’s annual Top 5.
“Livin’” had an intrinsic honesty, thanks in part to songs by such young alternative country artists as Hayes Carll and Julie Miller, as well as seasoned songwriters Neil Young and Bruce Robinson.
“This is music that lives on the darker side of bad marriages and missed life chances, many filled with regrets,” “American Songwriter” opined.
Her newest album exhibits that same plain-spoken honesty, providing an uncluttered stage for Womack’s unfussy vocals and heartfelt emotions.
“People ask why I named the record “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone,” and that’s because those are the people I sing for,” she told Billboard. “Like country music used to be, you know? For the working man, the common man, whatever you want to call it.”