Hello Dolly

The Lee Ann Womack fairy tale has problems. First and foremost, it hasn't delivered big money: just gold, not the multiplatinum of early expectations. Second, you-all haven't heard it.

Here it is, then. Once upon a time in Texas, a part-time country DJ had a daughter who grew up loving Ray Price, Loretta Lynn, and the Grand Ole Opry. She dreamed that one day she too would sing in this beautiful stone-country world, and so, enduring the sneers and jeers of her peers, she plotted a career in Nashville. She wasn't discovered at once, of course, because she had so much talent that she needed to live through more pain and joy before becoming truly wonderful. So she hung around for years--singing demos and doing showcases while lesser women made it big and near-equals almost did--until, as a 30-year-old and a mother, she released Lee Ann Womackin 1997. It wasn't a compromise, an ill-fitting dress of any sort; it was the album of her dreams.

It was also the album of mydreams--an almost perfectly right reworking of mainstream country's virtues and the realization of the old, sad hope that one day, somebody might make a record which picked up where Dolly Parton left off circa 1974, when she was combining tradition and modernity into such a synthesis of feeling, meaning, and technique that it seemed nobody could possibly miss the message she was writing across the country singer's sky: HERE! Go here! THIS is where your soul will thrive. Hardly anybody went, of course. Dolly herself immediately hurtled hell for mohair in the opposite direction, and right there we lost a lot: a perfect diamond flushed down the vortex of pap, and little girls left looking up to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, in whom integrity perforce replaced rather than complemented an actual country childhood. Thus today we have Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, et al., country stars whose stylistic range runs from approximately Carole King to 'round about Juice Newton.

The good news is that the real thing survived, and in quantity. Lee Ann Womack isn't the only woman to have made a great straight country record this decade, just the best. Jann Browne, Bobbie Cryner, Joy Lynn White, Ruby Lovett, Sara Evans, Rosie Flores, Heather Myles, Rhonda Vincent, and Kelly Willis, to stick to obscure cases who deserve some recognition, have all cut beauties. Which of course is the bad news: despite the awards they win, genuine country albums by females rarely sell worth a durn. If they did, Patty Loveless would still be making them. Yet something in the air or the water or the soul keeps moving folks to fund heartbreakingly good youngish women singing straight down the line of legitimate descent. And though many fork out just once, insisting after the first dose of red ink on an abrupt popward swerve (Suzy Bogguss, Lari White) or a sad farewell (Mandy Barnett), now and again they stay with it. Happily, such is the case with Some Things I Know.

It really is wonderful, just like Lee Ann Womack. Her voice is unchanged, an achingly expressive, pitch-perfect amalgam of Dolly's sweet, tremulous high and a calm, clear center, its emotional throttle governed to the tiniest nuance with a killer combination of intelligence and instinct; she knows just when and how to let it flow, and exactly when and how to hold it back. The songs, as before, are the kind of gems Billy Sherrill might have acquired for Tammy or George in their heyday, or Dolly might have written for herself: slices of life raw side out, ironies galore, humor as deep as the hurt, hooks polished sharp. They're so perfectly set in the classic country mold--if you have it in your bones, you can hum harmony all the way through this record, first time out--that I believe Lee Ann's story that most of them were just sitting around unwanted when she went looking; Nashville is full of three-minute wonderments rejected by the numbskulls and worrywarts at the top. Producer Mark Wright has done the kind of job his good work with Clint Black and great work with Mark Chesnutt trained him for. There isn't a lovely steel run, a big beautiful B-3 chord, a heartfelt fiddle fill, or a luscious bank o' viols out of place, and the guests--Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Buddy and Julie Miller, and Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White--sound intimate enough to stay and do the dishes.

What more can I say? Well, lots. Her joyously mean spirit in ''I'll Think of a Reason Later.'' The way she slides around the lovesick depths of Buddy Miller's ''Don't Tell Me.'' The conviction she puts into Bobby Braddock's faded love/slippin' around combo, ''I'd Rather Have What We Had,'' offering a bullshit sentiment just the way too many people feel it. But what more do you need to know? Well, nothing. Go buy it. That way, this wonderful woman might get to make another one.

 
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