Every now and then a singer, deep into a nice little career, gets the ton-of-bricks gift of a hit song. It jets up the charts, seeps out of every pickup truck, is hummed in the check-out line at Wal-Mart. And suddenly the singer is struck by a glum vision of the inevitable future: 30 years from now, she'll be singing the same damn song in a lounge in Vegas or Branson.
Lee Ann Womack has such a hit in I Hope You Dance, which has spent most of the summer as the No. 1 country single. A sort of 12-step program in verse ("Don't let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter/When you come close to selling out, reconsider"), this ballad by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers gets a luscious setting, with Womack crooning it like a lullaby to a sad child. The song is sweet and swell, but it's not all that's special about the Jacksonville, Texas, singer.
The CD, her third, is also called I Hope You Dance (MCA Nashville), but the songs are mostly about falling (in love) and getting up to walk off the hurt. It's pain recollected in wisdom. "If you ever loved me the way I loved you/You would be lonely too." "As much as you burned me, baby/I should be ashes by now." Womack attacks these bruised sentiments in a voice that carries odd echoes: Dolly Parton without the wink and giggle, Alison Krauss after three years of therapy. Womack can play a tune choir-girl straight or give it a twist of bluegrass (which she can not only sing but also singe with wildfire intensity). Each rendition has the clarity of a soul that realizes loss is a form of purification, a scraping away of false ideals and excess emotional baggage.
Womack's work on this solid set suggests that she's too good for a future in the lounges. She should be playing main rooms for ages to come.
--By Richard Corliss