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Sin and Salvation at Knuckleheads: Lee Ann Womack showcases her new approach

Lee Ann Womack performed at Knuckleheads Friday.
Lee Ann Womack performed at Knuckleheads Friday. AP

Lee Ann Womack seemed disconcerted by the quirks of Knuckleheads during her debut at the venue on Friday. While Womack insisted that “I’d be here every night if I lived here,” the whistles of passing trains on nearby tracks repeatedly startled her.

“Is it gonna keep dinging like that all night?” she asked.

Womack was also unsettled by the casual atmosphere that included fans at the front of the outdoor stage handing her souvenirs to be autographed throughout her 90-minute performance. Her reactions weren’t surprising. The country artist spent most of her career appearing on bigger stages for substantially larger audiences.

One of country music’s most popular entertainers 15 years ago, Womack has issued only one album in the last seven years and hasn’t had a top ten country radio hit since 2004. Only a few hundred loyal fans attended Friday’s show.

Even though the numbers indicate that Womack’s career is winding down, the Texas native who will celebrate her 50th birthday on Aug. 19 performed like someone who was just given a new lease on life. Freed from the burden of fulfilling lofty commercial expectations, Womack can focus on the music she loves most.

She explained the origin of her penchant for songs about sin and salvation. She recalled “learning the drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs” when “my dad worked at the country (radio) station.” She also remembered that “my momma would take me to the church whether I wanted to go or not.”

The most affecting of the 21 songs she and her five-piece backing band performed, consequently, addressed that dichotomy. Womack sang “Send It On Down,” the tale of a woman with a drinking problem who prays for guidance, with conviction. She moaned that “I’d change if I could, but being bad, it feels so good” during “The Way I’m Livin’.”

The clever pairing of two hits about drunk dialing was similarly satisfying. Songs of lusty desperation, “Last Call” and “I May Hate Myself In the Morning” were a sobering admonishment of bad decisions. “I Hope You Dance,” Womack’s stirring signature song, was given a brawny treatment with sinewy guitar lines replacing the syrupy strings of the 2000 smash.

Although Womack encouraged fans to sing along to “I Hope You Dance,” her splendid voice was the most impressive component of the evening. The abiding power of her instrument indicates that rather than being washed up, Womack is poised for artistic rejuvenation.

SETLIST

Never Again, Again

All His Saints

Don't Listen to the Wind

The Fool

A Little Past Little Rock

The Bees

Solitary Thinkin'

You've Got to Talk to Me

Buckaroo

Wayfaring Stranger

Does My Ring Burn Your Finger

I'll Think of a Reason Later

You're Still On My Mind

Last Call

I May Hate Myself in the Morning

The Way I'm Livin'

Send It On Down

I Hope You Dance

Ashes by Now

Chances Are

Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good

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