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Sunday, 26 July, 2009 10:59 AM

Lee Ann Womack Closed the Circle with 'Call Me Crazy' (CMA)

Photo by Danny Clinch

MCA Nashville recording artist Lee Ann Womack

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

For much of the music world, Call Me Crazy is a welcome reunion with the voice and interpretive gifts of Lee Ann Womack after her three-year hiatus from recording.

But for Tony Brown, this album represents fulfillment of a dream that dates back to a fateful day in his office at MCA Nashville, when an intern unexpectedly caught his ear.

"The tape copy room was across the hall from my office," recalled Brown, who was at the time a staff producer and A&R executive with the record label. "Usually interns got the job of making compilations of songs when an artist is about to cut, so one day I heard one of them singing in there; when the music stopped, she'd keep singing by herself. And I was thinking, 'Man, she's got a killer voice!'"

She still does, but in those days Womack was an undergraduate at what was then Belmont College, a young Texas transplant in the early stages of her push toward success in Country Music. She was also, by her own admission, not exactly an ideal student.

"I didn't pay as much attention as I should have. That was my own fault. I don't want to say I didn't learn anything at Belmont, but I learned a whole lot more - and I hate to say it - sitting on the barstool, getting married a couple of times, having kids and living life. Basically, I wouldn't want somebody with my educational background to take care of my money," she said, laughing.

Luckily, Womack could compensate for any academic laxities with tons of talent and a bit of luck. Being in the midst of work with Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett and other artists, Brown admitted to not moving quickly enough in connecting with her. That became clear to him when producer Mark Wright dropped by with Womack to announce that they were about to start work together on her self-titled debut album.

"And," Brown summed up, "I said to myself, 'How stupid of me to not have followed up on this!'"

Sometimes time can help correct mistakes of the past. Over the next decade, Womack's star rose high into the Country Music firmament. She sold more than 6 million albums, won two Grammy Awards and six CMA Awards: Single for "I Hope You Dance" in 2000, Female Vocalist in 2001, Vocal Event for "Mendocino County Line" with Willie Nelson in 2002 and a trifecta in 2005 as she was honored with Musical Event for "Good News, Bad News" with George Strait, Single for "I May Hate Myself in the Morning" and Album for There's More Where That Came From.

She also worked with two of the best producers in and beyond Music City, Wright and Byron Gallimore. But with Call Me Crazy an important circle was closed as she recorded her first album with Brown at the helm.

"Tony was really good for me because he's worked with so many kinds of artists and personalities and also because he ran a lot of record labels and played on the road," Womack said. "He brings a lot of things to the table, so when he makes a record, he thinks about all the aspects of it. He converses with the players as you're listening down to a demo or me playing on guitar, and the ideas start flowing. Tony is real good about letting everybody speak up and say, 'What about this? Let's try this.' That's why the vibe of Call Me Crazy is different from what I've done in the past."

To understand that feeling, Brown advised, start with Womack's qualities as a singer. "When you're cutting Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts, it's about the voice but the track is what really drives the song," he explained. "With the way Lee Ann sings, the vocal drives the song, so the musicians have to play with her as opposed to her singing with them. Her voice isn't loud but it's really full and rich. Her pronunciation is so good. It's a pure voice, like Alison Krauss has. So I really wanted to complement her as if she was singing with no band around her."

Brown also made sure that Womack didn't do more than a couple of takes on each tune. "He was real adamant about that," she said. "When you sing something five or six times, it's not going to be as fresh. That was part of the reason why this album seems maybe a little deeper emotionally."

Writing and finding the right material made this easier. Most of the album reflects a preference that distinguishes much of her catalog, for songs that tell stories, often brushed with sadness or pain. "It's not that she's depressed, but sad songs make her happy: The more misery, the better," said Dale Dodson, who wrote four tracks with Womack on Call Me Crazy: "If These Walls Could Talk," "Everything But Quits" and "Have You Seen That Girl" (both with Dean Dillon as a third co-writer) and "New Again" (with Casey Beathard). "It's that old Tammy Wynette kind of thing: 'We've got a big house and big cars. We live in Brentwood. And we're miserable.'"

"When you sit down with Dale, he'll come right out and say, 'We need some more color in here. We've got to paint this picture,'" Womack said. "That's important, whether you're writing a short story or a song. When I'm reading something, I'm much more likely to get into it if I can see the picture in my head. If I'm listening to music, I want to be taken somewhere on a journey. If I'm singing or making a record for somebody, I want to take them with me."

Dodson, who met Womack in 1995 when she joined him on the writing staff at Sony Tree Publishing, draws from his experience of writing with her on songs that include "The Man That Made My Mama Cry" and "Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago" to observe that her co-writes usually begin with an idea from her for a fragment of a lyric or a title. Focusing on "If These Walls Could Talk," he remembered when she played him two initial verses as a starting point for their collaboration. From there, he came up with the chorus and introduced the poignant image, in the last verse, of a child praying bedside in a troubled home. Dodson also suggested a key change but couldn't find a convincing place or means to add it.

That problem was solved in the studio by Brown. Humming the zigzag line that lifts the tune through a modulation after an instrumental break, Dodson marveled, "It sounds so natural. When they called me over to hear the track, I just looked at Lee Ann and she pointed at him. That's just one reason why Tony, to me, is the best producer in this town since Billy Sherrill."

Sweetened by two all-star duets , with George Strait on the beautifully old-school "Everything But Quits" and Keith Urban on the more experimental "The Bees," and nourished from the classic well of saloon songs with its first two singles, "Last Call" and "Solitary Thinkin', "Call Me Crazy lifted Womack back into the spotlight following its October 2008 release on MCA Nashville. The months that followed included a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Performance, concert bookings that stretch through the summer and TV appearances that included "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," on which her 17-year-old daughter Aubrie provided backup guitar and harmony with her band.

One thing remains constant as long as Womack continues to write, record and perform. "I've changed a lot over the past 10 years," she mused. "I can look back at my records and see that growth, but my love of real Country Music is always the foundation. Whether it be Appalachian, bluegrassy, rootsy stuff or straight-ahead Texas shuffles, I love that kind of music. And all of my albums have dealt with real-life things. That's certainly not going to change either."

Neither is Brown's respect for his onetime intern. "I must say, I hustled Lee Ann to do this record," he admits. "And I was so nervous; I felt like it was my first record with George Strait. But now, when somebody says, 'Play me something you're really proud of,' I always play them this album. And I'm just glad she's back."

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CD cover photo by Danny Clinch

Lee Ann Womack's new album, Call Me Crazy is Detroit's exclusive media outlet for this syndicated weekly column!




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