Jacksonville, Texas, native Lee Ann Womack told a jam-packed Kessler Theater on Sunday night that when it came to making her most recent album, she had to go back before she could move forward.
“When I was growing up in East Texas, I had everything ahead of me, and I wanted to feel that way again,” explained Womack, her top-shelf, five-piece band arrayed behind her on the Kessler’s intimate stage.
To achieve that goal, she eschewed recording studios in Nashville and Los Angeles and instead decamped to Houston’s SugarHill Recording Studios, where she cut her ninth studio album, last year’s The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone. It’s hard to argue with the results, which drift among country, soul and rock, pulling from the Lone Star State’s rich, eclectic musical tradition.
“There’s all kinds of music in Texas,” Womack noted from the Kessler stage, name-checking the likes of Janis Joplin, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lefty Frizzell, and the fertile, creative soil of this state served as the foundation for her gorgeous, inspiring set Sunday before an appreciative sold-out crowd.
Her limber voice like a shot of fine whiskey — bracing, sweet and smoky — Womack worked her way through her material (“Bottom of the Barrel,” the elegiac “Mama Lost Her Smile” and, of course, “I Hope You Dance”) as well as crackling covers, such as her set-opening take on Buddy Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” and Ray Price’s “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You.” (Womack also got otherworldly harmony assists from guitarist Jonathan Trebing and drummer Dave Dunseath.)
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She even turned out a smashing rendition of Asleep at the Wheel’s classic anthem “Miles and Miles of Texas,” which featured one of the many instances of audience participation, a boisterous singalong on the chorus. The undercurrent of honky-tonk rowdiness was evident throughout the evening, with plenty of whoops, roars and declarations of undying love slicing through the dimly lighted space.
Womack handled it all with ease, even taking up one insistent fan on her plea to play the 2005 single “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago.” (“We haven’t played that one in a while,” said a wide-eyed Womack as the song ended.)
For as many highlights as the night contained, little could top the three-song interlude when Womack and her bandmates gathered around a single microphone, belting out tunes like “Long Black Veil” and the American folk classic “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” evocative of songs Womack said were like those she sang in church while growing up. The bliss radiating from the musicians around the microphone was practically palpable as they leaned in, making barely perceptible adjustments to the sounds made by those near them. You could hear a pin drop throughout.
With the music Womack grew up making informing the music she makes now, she found her inspiration right where it always was — at home.