It’s always fascinating to see how a recording artist responds once her days as a consistent hit-maker have passed: While some chase the latest trends in an effort to remain commercially relevant, others embrace their newfound creative freedom and challenge themselves to add something meaningful to both their own artistic legacy and to the country genre itself.
With “The Way I’m Livin’,” the title track to her first album in six years, it’s apparent that Lee Ann Womack has taken the latter route.
For the better part of twenty years, Womack has been one of country’s most distinctive vocal stylists, thanks to her languid sense of phrasing and deceptively sweet vocal tone. On “The Way I’m Livin’,” Womack uses her instrument in entirely new ways. Shortening her vowels and clipping individual phrases, she brings a worldly, damaged point-of-view to the song’s sordid tale of “lyin’ and a’sinnin’.” Not even her feisty readings of standout hits “Ashes by Now” and “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” hinted at her capacity for wallowing in vice the way she does here, and it’s downright revelatory.
Beyond the stellar vocal turn, though, what makes “The Way I’m Livin’” one of Womack’s finest singles is the complexity of the song itself. The imagery of the opening stanza, wherein Womack sings of meeting the Devil on the roadside and succumbing to temptation, may be familiar, but songwriter Adam Wright ensures that those images are fraught with implication. Whatever was in that “bottle of something sweet” the Devil may have offered, it was stronger than any Schnapps or other candied liqueur, and it set Womack’s protagonist on a wayward path.
Plenty of contemporary country songs, though, find women donning bad-girl drag. “The Way I’m Livin’” isn’t so one-dimensional. Too aware of both earthly and eternal forms of damnation to make for a braggart’s confession, the song is also too unapologetic to scan as a proper cautionary tale. The best Wright allows Womack to do is tell her mama not to worry, since she neither wants to nor can be saved. As the blues riffs and thundering percussion build behind her, Womack insists that, “If I ever get to Heaven, it’s a doggone shame.” She’s a woman in full control of her decisions, and she’ll be damned if she’ll hate herself in the morning.
Written by Adam Wright