Lee Ann Womack Takes a Stand to Make a Career-Changing Album (2000)

Lee Ann is belle of the ball with I Hope You Dance.

Originally published in the Sept. 5, 2000 issue of Country Weekly magazine.

When Lee Ann Womack went into the studio to record her third album, I Hope You Dance, she thought it would be business as usual. She was wrong.

“I was told my record label was shutting down,” says Lee Ann, sitting in a comfy chair in her manager’s office. “I went from being on a small label [Decca] with my place secured, to being one of many artists on a huge label, along with people like George Strait, Vince Gill and Reba McEntire.

“Then suddenly I found out I was going to have a baby! And my new label, MCA, wanted me to get another album out right away. But I couldn’t do that. First I had to take care of my family and get my personal life in order. So I just totally withdrew.”

Lee Ann bravely told her new label that she would make the record on her own time, and she took a hiatus. She married music business exec Frank Liddell, the father of her second daughter, Anna Lise—and adjusted to being a new wife and mother of two. (Lee Ann’s oldest child, Aubrie, is from her first marriage, to singer Jason Sellers.)

Finally, after finding harmony in her personal life, Lee Ann was ready to re-enter the recording studio.

“I just decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to make the record I want to make, and to heck with it,’” she says, throwing up her hands. “I didn’t really worry about what was going to get played on the radio. I didn’t really worry about anything, except making a great album.”

The strategy worked. The CD’s title cut spent a stunning five weeks at the top of the charts. After only four months, I Hope You Dance, which debuted at No. 1, is closing in on platinum status.

What’s more, Lee Ann recently captured five CMA nominations, including one for the coveted Female Vocalist of the Year. Her chart-topping “I Hope You Dance” received four nods.

“I loved the song since I first heard it, and I knew I wanted to record it because of everything it said,” she explains. “I release songs I love and hope for the best, but I didn’t dare hope for something like this.”

Yet even as critics are calling “I Hope You Dance” Lee Ann’s career song, she begs to differ. “When I think of a ‘career’ song, I think of the biggest song in your career. But I look at it as being the biggest I’ve had so far.”

Lee Ann hopes her next single, a cover of Rodney Crowell’s 1980 tune “Ashes by Now,” will follow suit. “It’s very different for me—really rockin’,” she says, smiling. “The guys in my band love to play it. Radio stations are already playing it.”

I Hope You Dance runs the gamut from contemporary to traditional to bluegrass. And Lee Ann wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m a music lover,” she says. “What kind of music it is is not as important as how well it’s played or written. And besides, I’m country. If I were to cut a Celine Dion song, it would probably still sound country because it’d be me singing it,” she adds with a laugh.

“I think that’s the common thread, as far as the country-ness of the record goes,” says Lee Ann. “When you have songs like ‘The Healing Kind’ and ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’ on a record, those are real rootsy, mountain-sounding songs.

“Of course, ‘I Hope You Dance’ is not. It’s very contemporary. But the theme and the feeling of it is very real—which is what country music is all about.”

Lee Ann credits husband Frank, who owns a music publishing company, with helping her find great songs.

“A lot of people look for songs that will take them in a new direction, or songs that are hit singles,” says the 33-year-old singer. “They’ll look for 10 singles that are ‘radio friendly.’ But when Frank and I look for songs, we look for things that move us. I figure if they move me, they’ll move somebody else, too.”

One song that moved Lee Ann is the Bobbie Cryner-penned “Stronger Than I Am.”

“It’s such a female, ‘chick singer’ kind of song,” she says. “It’s about a woman who, after the breakup of her marriage, sees that her child is stronger than she is at dealing with it. Throughout my life, I’ve heard so many people say that about their children.”

Then there’s the cover of Don Williams’ 1982 No. 1 “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good.”

“Right after I had Anna Lise, I was cleaning the house and had CNN going in the background,” Lee Ann recalls. “I heard another tragic story about another school shooting. I just remember thinking, almost as a prayer, ‘God, can’t we just have one day where nothing bad happens?’ That’s when that song popped into my head and I started singing it.

“When we went out to do a show that weekend, I sang it during sound check. The guys joined in, and we started playing it on the road. A couple of people from the label heard it and said, ‘You have got to cut that for your next record.’ So we did. I used my band in the studio on the song. I’m real proud of that cut—and proud of my guys.”

With a maelstrom of award nominations and a record-breaking single, Lee Ann’s on top of the world. But she’s not so far up that she can’t remember the days of knocking on Music Row doors.

“It was very frustrating,” she admits. “Jason was calling from all over the world playing with Ricky Skaggs—which was, to me, the ultimate. Meanwhile, back home, I couldn’t afford to pay a babysitter to watch Aubrie while I tried to get work. It was a catch-22.

“So finally I just took her with me when I was dropping off demo tapes. She’d go with me when I did sessions. Looking back, I can see that time spent really built a lot of character.”

Lee Ann leans back in her chair and smiles.

“The fact that I had to wait so long and work so hard,” she says, “makes me appreciate success so much more.”