The Last Dance
There’s a dark and a stormy side of life/There’s a bright and a sunny side too.
— “Keep on the Sunny Side,” The Carter Family
During an era in which most Nashville acts sing about life and love in a single perky key using what sounds like the same arrangement, Lee Ann Womack‘s “I Hope You Dance” stands out from its opening notes. A slurred, depressed bass introduces brushwork and brief stabbing guitar licks before giving way to brooding cellos and violins. Then Womack, singing in a voice suggestive of a young Dolly Parton, shares her dreams for someone she dearly loves: I hope you never lose your sense of wonder … May you never take one single breath for granted/God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed/… and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.
“There’s no mistaking that lyric,” Womack says over the phone during a tour stop in Bristol, Tennessee, the hallowed “birthplace of country music.” “When I first heard ‘I Hope You Dance,’ it made me think about my children. There’s no way you can hear that song and not think about the people you want the best for — I think that’s a very universal message. Everyone has someone in their life they really care about and they wish these things for, even if it’s sort of themselves…. It’s a song that crosses boundaries.”
Thanks to her father, a part-time country disc jockey in Jacksonville, Texas, during the 1960s and ’70s, Womack grew up immersed in what’s now called “classic country.” To Womack, though, it was entirely new. Now she wants to keep it that way.
“I want to help preserve country music,” she says. “It’s the very core of my existence. My influential years were spent listening to Conway Twitty, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens and even Bob Wills and Ray Price, that kind of Texas music. I see myself continuing that tradition.”
Twitty was particularly important to her. “My dad loved him so much, and when I was young, Conway was a big presence around our house. I went to see him — he was my first concert — and when he came out and went ‘Hello, darlin’,’ that was just it,” she gushes, laughing. “Conway really respected the songwriter too, and he spent a lot of time laboring over song selection. I like to think that I do that. We spend a great deal of effort looking for the best country songs we can find.”
Typed on the page, the song’s lyrics amount to little more than a musical Hallmark card, which might be all songwriters Mark Sanders and Tia Sellers intended. But it would take some pretty willfully superficial listening to just leave it at that. The singer’s guarded delivery, a rhythm track that feels held back even as it rolls inexorably forward, the Sons of the Desert’s baleful, contrapuntal vocals at the bridge —each betrays an awareness that Womack’s daughters, her fans, everyone will fall short of this song’s ideals as often as not.
“And if you don’t get that out of ‘I Hope You Dance,’ you should certainly get it out of the rest of the album,” Womack points out. She’s right. I Hope You Dance, the album, is a real rarity for mainstream country: an album that confronts life’s dark and stormy side from beginning to end. Veering between rocking, state-of-the-art country (her “Ashes by Now” turns Rodney Crowell’s slow-burning original into a firestorm) and bluegrass-inflected ballads, between songs provided by the Nashville machine (Bobbie Cryner) and those arriving from the alternative-country fringe (Buddy and Julie Miller), the album likely will be hailed one day as another link in the very chain of country tradition Womack has pledged to preserve.
Still, “I Hope You Dance” is the album’s centerpiece because it’s so sonically compelling and because it reveals such a keen understanding of the way life’s limits intersect with human hope. When you come close to selling out, reconsider, she sings, and a pedal steel guitar answers “Amen.”
“We’re talking about a very large puzzle and very long road here,” Womack insists. “One that takes turns and dips. And has peaks and valleys too.”