Grammy-winning country star Lee Ann Womack will meet up with country legend Mark Chesnutt for a one-time only concert event Saturday, Aug. 7, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill.
Womack, best known for her chart-topping single “I Hope You Dance,” is a Texas-born singer and songwriter who pursued a life as a performing artist from a very young age. Her career in Nashville began in the mid-‘90s and in that time she has recorded seven albums, her most recent being Call Me Crazy in 2008. In 2001 she received the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist award.
Classic country performers influenced Womack in her early years, artists such as Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Bob Wils, Ray Price and Glen Campbell. She considers her road act real, authentic country.
Womack spoke with Windy City Times about the upcoming performance, the approach she takes to performing in markets like Chicago that aren’t predominantly country and she also shared her thoughts about singer/songwriter Chely Wright coming out last May as the first lesbian country star.
WCT: (Windy City Times) Tell us a bit about this tour. What we can look forward to from your concert at the Morton Arboretum?
LAW: (Lee Ann Womack) The thing I’m looking the most forward to is that Mark Chesnutt will be there. He and I have known each other forever, we’re from the same part of the country—Texas—and I get super, super charged when I’m around him. I’m very much looking forward to it because I have a lot of people in Nashville who when they found out we were doing a show together started getting a bus together and planning a road trip to see the show.
WCT: Mark [Chesnutt] is known for his catchy classic country tunes and most people describe your music as the more soulful side of country so are you looking forward to that dynamic?
LAW: Yeah, and Chesnutt, too, is kind of soulful and by soulful, you know, kind of a George Jones, and George is also from Texas so I think we all grew up listening to a lot of that. You know, when you hear a lot of real traditional country music it does have a lot of soul in it; it’s the working man’s blues.
WCT: Are you two going to be performing at all together or you just going to have separate sets?
LAW: I can’t say for sure because I haven’t talked to Mark about it but I remember doing a show together where we did do a little duet together. We’ll have to see.
WCT: Playing in a place like Chicago—it’s not exactly the heartland of country music. Are there any differences performing in a market where country isn’t a way of life, so to speak?
LAW: You know, not really. Like when I play somewhere like in downtown New York, like Manhattan, or in L.A., I’m more likely to dig deeper into a real traditional country sound just because they don’t get it all the time. If they buy a ticket to hear a country show then I figure they’d be disappointed if they didn’t get real, authentic country music. So, for the most part, I’m just hardcore straight-up Texas honky-tonk country.
WCT: Every artist of your stature probably has that song that they’re going to perform every time they go out—in your case, “I Hope You Dance.” Does it ever get tough to perform or have you found new significance it over the years?
LAW: Well, I’m not going to lie, it does get tough and it does get frustrating sometimes because that’s more contemporary, more pop-country and what I prefer to do is more traditional country. But then again, always remember, even if I never recorded another song I could work forever off that one song so it’s good and bad, but sometimes it does feel like an albatross.
WCT: Lately, noticeably on Call Me Crazy, a lot of your song choices have come much more consistently from a soulful place and less in a contemporary/pop style. What sort of influences were there in putting that album together?
LAW: I think I just try to pick the best songs I can pick or write. I love all kinds of music and I prefer to branch out and try different things sometimes, but the heart and soul of everything I am is more traditional, so if I get away from it for a little bit I desperately miss it. I don’t think any musician or artist or singer worth listening to should never break out and try something different; I think everybody should [do something different]. I think it makes you do what you do better, but probably most everybody has either their specialty or their favorite.
WCT: Windy City Times is an LGBT publication, so I wanted to ask you a bit about your experience a few years back performing at the Nashville Human Rights Campaign Equality dinner. What was that like? Had you been involved with LGBT community before?
LAW: I had one of my very best friends ask me to do that. He was in charge of getting the entertainment for that and he asked me to do it and I said, “Sure.” He’s a gay friend of mine and I love him just—I can’t even describe, beyond words. I was like, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” So I did that for him. I’m not an activist in anything, I just believe very, very strongly that people should leave people alone and let them live the way they want to live, and I cannot begin to say that enough. So that’s why I was perfectly willing to go and do that.
WCT: Just a couple months ago, Chely Wright came out as the first openly gay country star. How well do you know Chely and what was your reaction?
LAW: I don’t know Chely that well, but I have known her for years. She is precious and I just wish her the very best. I don’t think anybody around Nashville was shocked when she came out because most people knew already. But, you know, just taking a public stance and everything, she had a round of press to do and dealt with it head-on and I think that’s great.
WCT: If you can put yourself in her shoes, is that as tough as it seems it would be given the country fan base is considered very traditional Christian?
LAW: Well Chely’s a Christian, too, and so am I and again, I can’t say enough how I think people—to me, a Christian—would at least leave people alone and let them be who they are and so I think it’s an individual thing. Sometimes I get offended when the Nashville or country-music community is made out to be so narrow-minded because I think there are narrow-mind people no matter what genre you’re talking about or what part of the country or anything. All I know is that, personally, my friends and I are just not. We’re not narrow-minded people.
WCT: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you say that because every group of people has those that are one extreme and those that are the other and sometimes people lose sight of that.
LAW: Right. Unfortunately, no matter what group you’re talking about, or what socioeconomic group or what religious group, you’re always going to have people who think they can tell everyone else how to live; that’s just all there is to it. And even if one group is picketing about one thing and “we want our rights” and “we don’t want you to tell us how to live,” those same people two days later will turn around tell somebody else how to live in some other way, it’s just crazy. And we’re all guilty of it a little bit, I guess, but my philosophy is “live and let live.”
WCT: Back to the music: What are you working on that fans can look forward to?
LAW: I’m working in the studio with my husband [Frank Liddell] and [producer] Tony Brown and just writing and working on a new record. I’ll hopefully have it finished this year.
WCT: Generally, you have a good mix of songs you’ve written and songs you perform of others. Is that going to be the same this time around?
LAW: Yeah, it will be. Some I’ve written, but most I didn’t. I love songwriters and people who do it 24-7 and the pass just like my pass is singing and I think they’re great at it and I love discovering little gems especially among new writers.
Lee Ann Womack is part of an all-star concert line-up Aug. 6-8—”In Tune with Trees”—at the Morton Arboretum that will include Lyle Lovett, Marc Cohn and Bettye LaVette. See www.mortonarb.org or call 630-725-2066 (Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.) for more information.