Lee Ann Womack

Recent albums by Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, and Trisha Yearwood have all hinted that commercial country music may finally be resolving its current pop sheen with its twangy hard-core past. No one, though, has negotiated this conflict as persuasively as Lee Ann Womack does on her third release, I Hope You Dance. Part of her success can be attributed simply to strong material, provided by songwriters both in the mainstream (Bobbie Cryner) and a bit more out on the fringes (Julie and Buddy Miller). Also, Womack isn't afraid to mix some older sounds in with her newer ones: "The Healing Kind" is more or less straight-up bluegrass, while "Ashes by Now" could be the greatest Shania Twain record you'll ever hear. Mainly, though, Womack's best work here succeeds because it sounds for the ages and of the moment all at once. "Stronger Than I Am," for example, weds a Dolly Parton-inspired vocal and a D-I-V-O-R-C-E-theme mother-and-daughter lyric with a contemporary pop-country ballad arrangement.

The title track manages this balance as though it weren't the slightest bit tricky. Backed by the most irresistibly stunning soundscape to grace country radio since at least "This Kiss," Womack runs through a list of life wishes she has for a child, or maybe a departing lover: "May you never take one single breath for granted/God forbid love ever leaves you empty handed," and so on. These sentiments might come off saccharine if lurking in Womack's voice, and in the steel guitar and threatening strings behind it, wasn't the reality that every one of these wishes will fail to come true, over and over. It is this palpable sense of the inevitability of pain and loss that more than anything else turns this great single, the most modern-sounding cut on Womack's disc, into its most traditionally country one as well.

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David Cantwell