Timing may be everything, but when you get it as wrong as Lee Ann Womack did, it can leave you with nothing at all.
These days Womack is known more for her outspoken traditional stance on country music than for her actual musical output, but once upon a time she was a rising star in the industry that struck gold with the massive crossover hit “I Hope You Dance” at the turn of the millennium. However, despite being Womack’s signature song, the song sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of her discography, and the bottom fell out of her career soon afterwards, leading to Taylor’s question as to what happened:
In looking at Womack’s career, the issue that drove it into the ground appears to be a misalignment of artist and label goals due to (you guessed it) timing: Womack aspired to be a classic country vocalist, while MCA Nashville felt industry winds blowing towards pop-country divas and tried to turn Womack into one of them. It worked for one magical moment, but the experiment quickly went off the rails, and by the time Womack reasserted herself, her moment had passed.
So how did this all go down? Let’s turn the clocks back to the late 90s for a moment…
Womack released her first two albums (1997’s self-titled debut and 1998’s Some Things I Know) on Decca Records, a subsidary/”sister label” of MCA Nashville. If Womack’s ultimate goal was to be a classical country singer, she certainly got her wish here: Her singles and subject matter from the era are pretty much standard neotraditional fare, from the can’t-quite-quit-someone “Never Again Again” to the super-fun jealousy-fueled romp that is “I’ll Think Of A Reason Later.” Performance-wise, her songs acquitted themselves quite well: Despite no U.S. #1 hits, Womack scored four #2 singles and won the ACM’s Top New Female Vocalist award in 1997, suggesting that her career was on a solid uphill trajectory.
However, there were some concerning signs about Womack’s style almost immediately: Twelve radio stations completely refused to play “Never Again Again” “because it was too country,” and Womack admitted in later years that getting radio to play her records was a grind:
“I was doing a real hardcore traditional country music. And that’s not what anybody else was doing, and radio wasn’t playing it. So I had to struggle every single time I put a single out.” —Womack, 2018
She’s not wrong: The late 90s were absolutely dominated by Shania Twain, whose Come On Over album spawned six Top Ten country singles (three of which hit #1, and two of which cracked the Top Five on the Hot 100) in 1997 and 1998. Other female power vocalists were seeing similar crossover success:
- Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” hit #1 on Billboard’s country chart and #7 on the Hot 100 in 1998, and “Breathe” would reach #1 and #2 respectively the very next year.
- Martina McBride’s 1997 album Evolution would send four singles to #1 or #2 on Billboard’s country chart (two of which would crack the Top 40 on the Hot 100), and her 1999 leadoff single for Emotion “I Love You” hit #1 on country radio, #24 on the Hot 100, and #21 on the AC charts.
- Jo Dee Messina scored three #1 hits in a row in 1998, and became a fixture in the upper half of the Hot 100 for the next few years.
- “How Do I Live” was so big that it was a hit for two country artists: Leann Rimes’s version peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, while Trisha Yearwood’s version reached #23 on the same chart (and #2 on country radio).
In other words, the time was ripe for female country artists to cross over into pop territory, and Womack wasn’t in on the success.
For its part, Decca didn’t seem to be too bothered by Womack’s classical style. However, the label closed it doors in 1999 not long after Some Things I Know was released, and Womack was one of the few artists (Gary Allan was another) that was transferred back to MCA Nashville instead of released. Up to this point, MCA hadn’t cashed in much on the pop-country boom: Reba McEntire wasn’t quite the force she had been in years past (although she did sneak a few tracks halfway up the Hot 100 starting in 1998), and after “How Do I Live,” Yearwood was beginning to struggle as well. (Chely Wright had a country #1 and Top 40 hit in 1999 with “Single White Female,” but it wound up being her only Top Ten hit.) The label didn’t have a top-tier crossover artist like Mercury’s Twain, Warner Bros.’s Hill, RCA’s McBride, or even Curb’s Messina, and Womack seemed as good a candidate as any to become one.
Womack herself admitted she was not completely opposed to the idea:
“I wouldn’t say I compromised, but I tried to give the label something they could work with while still being who I was.” —Womack, 2018
Subsequently, Womack’s third album I Hope You Dance featured tracks with a slicker, more-modern sound: The string section on the title track, the darker, more-prominent electric guitars, unconventional percussion, and lively background vocals on “Ashes By Now,” and so on. The album’s title track, of course, became the song that would imprint Womack in the consciousness of the masses:
The shift initially paid off: “I Hope You Dance” topped the country and AC charts, and peaked at #14 on the Hot 100. However, things dropped off quickly: “Ashes By Now” hit #4 on country radio and #45 on the Hot 100, “Why They Call It Falling” fell to #13 and #78 respectively, and “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” dropped to #23 and didn’t reach the Hot 100 at all. The experiment wasn’t looking so great, but hey, there’s nothing that a fresh new album can’t fix, right?
That brings us to 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind, which turned out to be not worth leaving behind at all. The album was a failure at nearly every level: The album only produced two singles (neither of which made it past #20 on Billboard’s country chart), the critical reaction was mixed at best, and it failed even to reach gold status after I Hope You Dance went triple-platinum. (Even Womack herself declared that the album “tanked.”) To be fair, Womack wasn’t the only female artist from the era that was struggling: The music landscape shifted away from pop-country divas as the millennium began, and even powerhouses like Twain, Hill, and McBride were reaching the end of their runs by this time. Regardless of the whys, however, the fact remained that MCA had bet big on making Womack a pop-contry superstar, and after rolling a single seven, they got nothing but snake eyes.
The good news (at least from Womack’s perspective) is that the collapse of Something Worth Leaving Behind apparently gave her the license to go back to her preferred traditional style, and she did just that for 2005’s There’s More Where That Came From. This time, she went in eyes wide open that this might not be a commercial success, and while it did outperform her previous album (it eventually earned a #10 country single and a gold certification), it wasn’t nearly enough to maintain her mainstream relevance. Country music was indeed still leery of anything that was ‘too country,’ and as Womack drifted further and further in that direction throughout the 2000s, she would never again crack the Top Ten on country radio.
The Burning Question
Womack herself has identified timing as a major issue behind her career struggles, proclaiming “that [the late 1990s] probably couldn’t have been a worse time for me.” All of the evidence I’ve dug up seems to point in that direction as well, but it begs another question: By just how much did Womack miss her window to superstardom? On one hand, my gut tells me it wasn’t by much: The early 1990s felt like a boom time for more-traditional female artists, as least as far as I can remember. The numbers, however, indicate that the results are a bit more mixed:
|Artist||#1 country singles 1990-1995|
|Mary Chapin Carpenter||1|
There was certainly some opportunity for women to succeed in the early 90s, but not a lot of it, and certainly not for more-traditional artists (McEntire had transitioned to a poppier sound by this time). Given how Womack’s early-career work compares to someone like Loveless or Yearwood, she might have had a chance to reach superstar status, but not a particularly good one.
What about the 1980s? The Urban Cowboy movement gave us artists like Crystal Gayle and Barbara Mandrell in the early 80s, but artists like McEntire and Mattea found some room to breathe during the late 80s neotraditional movement, so that might have been Womack’s best shot at making her brand of music stick. Start her career in 1987 instead of 1997, and things would likely have turned out differently…but then again, “I Hope You Dance” may not have resonated quite so well in 1990 as it did in 2000. All things considered, it’s a decent choice to be someone’s signature song, and it’s probably the only reason people remember Womack today.
So in the end, was Lee Ann Womack’s timing fortuitous or unfortunate? It really depends on a person’s own vision for what country music should be. If you’re an old-school fan who considers Womack a traditionalist champion, her timing was an absolute travesty. If you’re a pop-country fan, Womack gave you one of the best and most-memorable songs of the era, so how could this be a bad thing? Either way, she left enough of a mark on the genre that it warranted a closer look at how her career went down, and as a concerned blogger who’s interested in this sort of story, I’d say it makes her timing just about perfect.