Lee Ann Womack has returned to her roots, and she couldn’t be happier about it. It took her awhile to make the trip, however.
When she released “The Way I’m Livin’ ” in 2014, six years had passed since the release of her previous record. Those years were a time of recalibration.
“Music Row was moving further and further away from anything that could be called country,” she told The Star on Wednesday. “I guess I sort of lost interest in what I had been doing or in the career that I had. I hadn’t lost interest in music. I was writing and going to shows, listening to music and playing music … but I was kind of disenchanted with my commercial country career.”
“It took me six years to unwind and start thinking in a different way. You get into that commercial game and your mind goes to a certain place and you start thinking, ‘Well, this is what making music is.’ It took me a while to unlearn a lot of things and appreciate music more the way I did before I went to Nashville.”
Before she moved to Nashville, she was a student and fan of traditional country and American roots music, the songs and artists she listened to growing up in east Texas.
“My dad worked at the local country station, so I listened to … George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn,” she said. “And I spent a lot of time in church, so I learned a lot about gospel music and harmonies.
“And a lot of music in east Texas is influenced by music that came over from Mississippi and Louisiana. You had Lightnin’ Hopkins and Blind Willie Johnson and blues artists like that. And to me it’s all so indicative of American roots music and it’s all kind of tied together.”
Womack, who performs Friday night at Knuckleheads, went to Nashville in the early 1990s. In May 1997, she released her self-titled debut, which cracked the Top 10 on the country charts and went platinum. Her intentions, she said, haven’t changed over 19 years.
“My goal when I went to Nashville was to get country music back on Music Row,” she said.
But that was easier said than done. For much of her time in the major-label world, she fought for her goals and mission.
“I fought it every minute of every day,” she said. “The music that’s made in Nashville for major labels — as far as the commercial business goes — they have a certain box you have to fit in, so they want to be able to define what you’re doing.
“It’s product to be sold to a certain market that already likes a certain thing. So when I say I had to fight it every minute of every day, it was me trying to get them to buy what I was selling instead of selling what they were buying.”
Her faith in the cause was bolstered by her faith in the music.
“I knew I could have some success doing what I wanted because a lot of people really love traditional country music, and there’s an honesty to it that people recognize,” she said. “And I think that’s why I’ve been able to have the success that I’ve had.
One of her inspirations is one of her favorite songwriters, John Prine.
“You hear John Prine and his fans are so into what he’s doing, and they’re responding to the honesty. He’s not tied up in a neat package with a pretty bow. He’s so raw and so honest, and his audience is so diverse. I love that.”
Music fans in Kansas City witnessed her love and loyalty for traditional country music in April, when she performed with Jamey Johnson at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena. The show initially was to feature Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, but Haggard died several days before the show. So Nelson recruited Johnson to perform a set of Haggard tunes for several shows. Johnson asked Womack to join him.
“Jamie is one of those guys who can say, ‘I’m going to go out on the road and do a bunch of Merle Haggard songs,’ ” she said. “There are not many artists who come from Music Row and the commercial Nashville world that will do that. He’s really making music, not widgets. He’s a true artist.”
His call arrived at the last minute, but it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“When he called and asked me to come out for that weekend, I had just finished a run of shows of my own — just gotten off the bus,” she said. My husband and I met for breakfast, and Jamie called. I looked at my watch and said, ‘You know what? Let me run home and get some clean clothes and I’ll meet you there.’ I got in the car and drove and met him.
“So I played those shows with him and his band and Willie and the guys. Those are the moments as an artist that you live for. That is really making music and doing it for a reason, something other than record sales or charts.
Friday night, she will bring her five-piece band to Knuckleheads, where she will perform some new songs, some hits and favorites and several tracks from “The Way I’m Livin’,” which received two Grammy nominations. The nominations are just more icing on a cake that she is proud to have made on her own terms.
“I’ve had a great career in commercial country, and I’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “But I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had without having any constraints on what kind of music I make.”
Lee Ann Womack performs Friday at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester Ave. The Grisly Hand opens at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $35.