updated 07/31/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/31/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Fans too breathed a sigh of relief that no harm had come to one of the freshest new voices in country music. Bucking the Shania-inspired trend toward crossover pop flavorings, Womack, 33, has helped return tradition to the top of the country charts with her heartstring-twanging message song, "I Hope You Dance." "It's about always being in awe of life and the world around you," she says of the No. 1 anthem (the title track from her third album), which was played at countless spring proms and graduation ceremonies this year. "It's about never giving up on your dreams."
For Womack, the dream has always been to make music that harkens back to country's golden era. "Lee Ann has that timeless, Pasty Cline-like quality to her voice," says singer Ray Benson of the Grammy-winning Western Swing band Asleep at the Wheel. "You hear it and you don't have to question if it's country or pop. If Lee Ann sings a song, it's country."
A traditionalist when it comes to her music, Womack is less so in real life. A divorced single mom when her first, self-titled CD hit in 1997, she generated more gossip than the Harper Valley PTA the next year, when she appeared, unwed, un-apologetic and several months pregnant by her then-boyfriend, record executive Frank Liddell, 36, at the Country Music Association Awards show. "If Frank and I are going to get married," she said at the time, "it's because it's right for us and not because we're supposed to."
Womack has been dancing to a different fiddler since her childhood in tiny Jacksonville, Texas. The second daughter (sister Judy, 39, is a lawyer in Houston) of schoolteacher mom Ann and dad Aubrey, a principal who moonlighted as a radio deejay, now both 60, Womack says she grew up "surrounded by music. I used to go with my daddy to the radio station, and I remember knowing that when I grew up, I wanted to make records like the ones I was hearing."
"She always wanted to go to Nashville," says Ann. "There were times we wondered if she should quit, but we never dissuaded her. We wanted her to follow her dreams."
To help her, they gave her piano lessons. "At first I hated every minute of it," Womack says. "My teacher made me play classical music, and I wanted to play country. I used to sit and play these sad little songs, wishing I was in Nashville."
At 18, she enrolled in that city's Belmont University, which offers courses about the music industry. After leaving, three courses shy of graduation, in 1990, she married singer Jason Sellers, 29, but the couple, whose daughter Aubrie was born in 1991, split amicably in 1997. With baby in tow, Womack cold-called record labels, badgering executives to listen to her demo tapes. In 1997 she was signed by Decca, and the label assigned Frank Liddell to help her find material. "We really didn't like each other at all," Womack says. "He had this yuppie look, wearing khaki pants all the time."
"She really hated me," confirms Liddell, who said he wanted her to make the kind of "ultraslick" country album they both despise. "I told her, 'We're fixin' to make a plain ol' factory record.' I was being sarcastic, but she believed me."
It took several months of working together, Womack says, "before I realized that this guy was really great at finding fantastic songs." Soon came love; then, in January 1999, came baby—daughter Anna Lise, now 19 months—then, 10 months later, in November 1999, came marriage. "We make it work," Womack says of the balancing act she and Liddell perform, which includes homeschooling Aubrie so they can take her and the baby on the road as Womack promotes her hit CD. "I feel Aubrie will get a great education by experiencing life and by being around her family," she says. And as Womack crisscrosses the country, singing "I Hope You Dance," fans hope she drives—carefully.
Chris Coats in Jacksonville and Dallas