DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Lee Ann Womack's biggest hit song, 2000's "I Hope You Dance," has been played at everything from countless weddings to the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize concert. Yet Womack hasn't released a new album since 2008 and the sound of the country music on her current release, "The Way I'm Livin'," is very different from the kind of country that's dominating the industry right now. Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IT ON DOWN")
LEE ANN WOMACK: (Singing) Dad used to own the hardware store. But now it and him ain't around no more. Don't know the whole story but I've overheard some. I know he's who I've got my drinking from. Jesus can you save me from going crazy? I need some help getting out of this town. Are there any answers?
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Lee Ann Womack sings about hard economic times, solitary drinking and reliance upon a spiritual life on that song - "Send It On Down." This is subject matter that used to be common on country radio. People made hits out of it, just as Womack had been making hits since the late 1990s. But a few years ago, the country industry and its biggest audience took a turn away from this kind of music and the hits stopped. In response, Womack has intentionally stepped away from current country trends to cover songs like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LISTEN TO THE WIND")
WOMACK: (Singing) Love and lies he gave to me. Now a million lovers couldn't set me free. He haunts me like the winds that blow with the memory that won't let go. Every face is his it seems. When I sleep he's in my dreams. All the thoughts my heart recalls drench me like the rain that falls. Don't listen to the wind. Don't listen to the rain. Can't you hear it call his name? Don't say it's all right. Don't say it's going to end. It'll be a long time before I can love again.
TUCKER: That is "Don't Listen To The Wind" written by Julie Miller - the sort of moody music for which Womack's voice is well-suited. At the start of her career, Womack's vocals, high and lonesome, were frequently compared to Dolly Parton's, an early idol of hers.
As Womack's career progressed, she developed her own style of passionate singing that avoided mannerism and kept flagrant emotionalism in check. When she started having hits in the '90s, she was surrounded on the radio by other female hit-makers such as Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless and Martina McBride. Yet Womack always stood out. You can hear that distinctiveness intact on a song on the new album, such as "Chances Are," written by Hayes Carll.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANCES ARE")
WOMACK: (Singing) Chances are I took the wrong turn every time I had a turn to take. And I guess I broke my own heart every chance I had a heart to break. And it seems I spent my whole life wishin' on the same unlucky lucky star. And as I watch you 'cross the bar room I wonder what my chances are. Well, I know you've been around...
TUCKER: The hard-luck stories that dominate "The Way I'm Livin'" combine over the course of this album to offer a cohesively positive idea. If I can survive these tribulations, Womack seems to be saying, so can you in your life. It's a slightly different tone than the one Womack had on what will probably remain the biggest hit of her career, "I Hope You Dance."
It was a once-in-a-lifetime anthem that touched so many lives, Womack was asked to sing it at Maya Angelou's funeral earlier this year because it was one of the poet's favorites. But in order to continue chronicling lives undergoing severe tests of strength and character, as she does on the title song of "The Way I'm Livin'," Womack had to do it knowing that she wouldn't be racking up new hit singles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY I'M LIVIN'")
WOMACK: (Singing) I met the devil on the side of the road one day. He said, how do you do? I said, it's hard to say. So he smiled at me with a wicked grin. He reached into his coat and then he gave me a bottle full of something sweet - said I'll fill it up every time we meet. Oh, mama, the way that I am livin', lyin' and a sinnin' and I just can't change. Oh, mama, the way that I'm livin', if I ever get to heaven, it's a doggone shame. One little drop was all it took to get my name in his book.
TUCKER: Nowadays, the country music charts don't have anything like the number of women Lee Ann Womack was surrounded by when she started out. The industry's biggest star, Taylor Swift, has left for a venture in pop stardom. Womack is headed off in another direction, scaling back and finding a smaller but more devoted audience. That audience wants to hear her traditionalist style as a kind of realism - one that connects to feelings they have about the world around them just now. And in the strength of her vocals, her audience can take some strength for their own lives.
BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker reviewed Lee Ann Womack's new album titled "The Way I'm Livin'." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.