KEEPING HER BALANCE

The monstrous success of "I Hope You Dance" tore Lee Ann Womack away from her home and family. As she readies to hit the road again, she promises to do it differently.

Lee Ann Womack steps slowly through her midtown Nashville home, taking time to point out the backyard renovations she and husband Frank Liddell recently completed.

"You know, it's not usually this quiet around here," says the mother of two girls with a smile as she offers a cup of freshly brewed coffee. "There's almost always some kind of activity going on."

As if on cue, daughter Aubrie, who will be 14 in February, breezes in from school, plopping a pile of books on the kitchen counter and digging through the refrigerator. Minutes later, her husband calls with a question about an upcoming dinner with friends. Then Lee Ann's personal assistant, Courtney Crist, swings open the front door accompanied by the singer's mother, who just flew in from Texas. Lee Ann's leaving for a weekend show, and her mom will spend the weekend with Aubrie and Anna Lise, 6, who'll be home from kindergarten classes any moment.

Lee Ann apologizes for the interruptions. "This is what keeps me sane," she explains. "If I'm not performing somewhere, then I want to be here. I'd rather be home than out traveling anywhere in the world. I get enough of that with my work, so it's really special to me when I can be home."

She's made a point in the last three years to clear time in her schedule so she can be home more often. Her new album, There's More Where That Came From, is her first collection of new material since 2002. She took most of 2004 off, putting out her first greatest-hits album and concentrating on finding new songs.

"It was really great to get off the road for a while," says Lee Ann. "It was great to be normal again, to take the kids to school, to drop them off at functions or go see movies with them. I missed that so much."

Lee Ann knows what it's like to be so busy that time at home is a rare commodity. After her award-winning 2000 hit "I Hope You Dance," the singer's life leaped into the fast lane. The song crossed over to pop radio, and Lee Ann found herself performing with everyone from Alan Jackson to Destiny's Child.

"Recording that song and singing it or people all over the world was such a great experience," says Lee Ann. "But because of how it was a country hit first and then a pop hit later, it really lasted a long time - and I got burned out in a major way."

So she retreated to her Nashville home, a welcoming place with comfortable furniture, lots of wooden tables and fixtures, and warm accents of candles, family photos and flowers.

"Frank grew up in a huge house with lots of expensive antiques in an exclusive part of Houston, and when we bought this place, he said the only thing that was important to him was that it was a place our friends, mostly songwriters and musicians, would feel comfortable in," says Lee Ann. "I was glad he felt that way. I grew up in a small house where my mom and I sewed all the pillow covers and curtains, so I like a house to feel lived-in. Every piece of furniture had to be comfortable and homey before we'd agree to buy it."

Lee Ann also took time in 2004 to accompany Aubrie to Los Angeles for acting classes. "She studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute all summer," beams Lee Ann. "She loved it and she's very serious about it. She's always done well at school, but she really got into the acting thing this year."

Attending the high-profile theater classes came after Aubrie began saying that she'd like to be like Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears - to have a career as a singer and an actor.

"At first, I nearly had a heart attack," laughs Lee Ann. "But then I sat her down and said, 'All right, if you want to act, you're really going to learn the craft and do it right.'"

Lee Ann took her cues from how her father - a country music deejay - reacted when she told him she wanted to become a country singer. "He played me all the great country records, all the really classic stuff, and made me study it," she remembers.

"So with Aubrie, I had her watch all these classic movies - and we started recording episodes of Inside the Actors Studio so she could watch actors talk about acting. Then I enrolled her in the Strasberg school. After all that, she was even more into it than ever, so I know she's serious."

As Lee Ann prepares to start touring regularly again, she promises herself that she'll find a better balance than she did a few years ago.

"If I didn't have kids, I'd want to be on the road 300 days a year," she says. "I'd work nonstop. I love music, and love the business around it, too. But I love my kids even more - and right now my first obligation is to be a mother. Everyone I work with knows what my priorities are."

- MICHAEL McCALL

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