Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ | Cameron’s Picks

In my latest video, I dig into one of my favorite albums, Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’. The series Cameron’s Picks marks a new intended direction for my channel, towards analysis that is more personal and introspective, eschewing attempts to cater towards what I envision as some outside audience – a largely fictional force that has nonetheless driven the creative and critical work I’ve put out over the last few years as I’ve attempted to “fit in” or “become popular”, to little avail.

This video has taken me well over a month to prepare and complete, partly because I’ve put significantly more effort into it than I have previous videos, and partly because my life has, on a social and emotional level, been more turbulent than ever while I’ve been working on it. I’m still living at home, of course, but my friendships – real-life and digital – have kept me heavily preoccupied. Procrastination, too, of course.

The goal of Cameron’s Picks is relatively simple: I talk about works of media that have shaped me in some way, and that I think deserve deeper analysis and exposure, however small that exposure may be. My fascination with the way I – we – interact with art, especially the modern mediums I’m familiar with – music, film, gaming – is an integral piece of who I am, largely because I spend so much time consumed in them that they more or less are the bulk of my human experience.

Understanding the way art moves me, the way it creates and reflects the person I am, has been central to my prolonged NEETish self-exploration over my three gap years. I continue to find myself inside a long-lived identity crisis – not knowing who I am or could be, or what I can represent through my writing and videos – but trying to pin down why certain songs or films move me a certain way, or why I even care about those art forms so much in the first place, has given me some perspective on what matters to me, and how I can use that for some “greater” purpose.

One thing that has stuck out to me about the media I love is a sense of passion, of sincerity, regardless of genre, and that’s a central notion in my admiration for The Way I’m Livin’. I’ve made it a point of mine to “try anything” – words a friend recently used to describe me – and specifically with film and music that’s left me without much of an obvious “taste”. I like some rap, some pop, some electronic, some rock, some country, but there isn’t – or, at least, hasn’t been – a genre that I can pin down as “my style”. That’s changing – I lean more and more towards optimistic pop and chill a e s t h e t i c -wave with every passing day – but my eclecticism, which I initially pursued as an attempt to be as objective and “patrician” as possible, and have clung onto through my fear of commitment and conflict, has left me a complex combination of confused, empowered, open-minded and culturally lonely.

a quote from my Letterboxd review of “Get Out” that relates to my love of “The Way I’m Livin'”

What trying a little bit of everything has taught me is that any idea or story can move me, if it’s presented with clarity, honesty, and vigor. In my new video, I explain that while I, an atheist, shouldn’t have been able to connect with Lee Ann’s intensely, blatantly spiritual lyrics, I was drawn by her depth of vocality, and the clearness of the lyrical images (I would later fall in love with imagism as a poetic movement while taking a Coursera course, and it somewhat informs the effects I tried to weave into the video).

Lee Ann’s ability to evoke a unique, clear world – to have a singular story seem to represent the entirety of experience – has stuck with me, even – especially – though she didn’t actually write any of the tracks on the album herself. I’m obsessed with individual identity and the qualities that allow people to become leaders and icons – the release of the TIME 100 is generally my favorite day of the year, besides maybe the Oscars – largely because of the dueling forces of unquenchable ambition and lack of clear self-identity that drive my internal conflict. Thus, Lee Ann’s ability to clearly express herself, and tell a story through 13 simple country songs from 13 different sources, immensely inspires me.

I try to express this in my video. Making it proved quite the ordeal, though a lot of my hurdles were technical and emotional. Actually listening to the album and getting the script down was pretty easy. I’d heard it dozens of times before, and besides a bit of effort in focusing on individual songs, I had no trouble hammering out my thoughts on an album incredibly close to my heart. I wrote the bulk of the script – which ultimately totally over 3400 words – in one sitting, making the finishing touches the next night.

But even though writing is my most comfortable medium, I wasn’t actually used to writing scripts for my videos. In the past year I’ve typically done most of my videos impromptu in front of the greenscreen, though nerves and selective memory ensured multiple takes were necessary to capture takes I was even remotely happy with. I’m still not 100% pleased with my video output since I moved back to Michigan from Ireland last May, and my fast-talking anxiety is abundantly clear, but I also believe in growth, and keeping the less-than-stellar videos up on my channel as an honest record of my journey as a YouTuber (and person).

This time, I opted to forgo being on screen entirely, except in heavily-edited clips of myself used as a visual cue and not directly synced with my voiceover. To record the audio, I used the same SingStar microphone (connected to a Tascam audio recorder) that you can see me using in my Top 50 Albums of 2016 video. It’s the best quality audio setup that is, to my knowledge, available to me, and makes for slightly better audio quality than my usual videos. There’s still a bit of background noise and crackling, and I put in a warning at one point in the video just before a bit of loud feedback, but it’s the clearest I think I’ve ever sounded on tape.

I also made a concerted effort to talk much slower than usual, which has been a consistent complaint with my speech since high school debate club. There are sections where I panic or rush a little that don’t sound exactly how I wanted them too, but I decided to go with the take I had (the second of two long takes of the script), and not re-record those sections, out of practicality and general laziness. Most notably of all, I also went through and deleted most of my breathing from the audio file, by far the most “labor”-intensive part of the process. Speaking too close to the mic probably didn’t help, but on first hearing the audio I became immensely self-conscious about all the breaths, which my mind told me were embarrassingly loud. I’d say that accounted for almost half of the time I spent working on the video.

Stylistically, I attempted a low-key, minimalistic doc-nalysis heavily inspired by wosx’s Vaporwave: A Brief History (below), which has been quite unironically situated in my “Favorite Films” section on Letterboxd for quite a while. Without using too much of the actual music from the album, I wanted to give viewers an audiovisual reference while discussing each song, and hopefully evoke a sense of what listening to the album is like, with a nostalgic, vaporwave-y sheen. I faded a different stock footage clip over the intro to each song, effects which I’m pretty happy with (besides a few awkward instances with the timing).

In terms of the content, it’s the deepest I’ve gone into my own memories and feelings while discussing a work; certainly, the most I’ve done so on video. I’m especially happy with the section referencing League of Legends, which is entirely accurate, if a bit cringey. Memories of music inform our enjoyment of it as much as real-time listening, and my appreciation of The Way I’m Livin’ will be forever tied with playing that game.

Having such a strong, specific memory of the first listen of the album was one of the main reasons I chose it to be the first subject of the series, but I had other motives as well. Importantly, I chose The Way I’m Livin’ because it’s a favorite I’ve kept almost entirely to myself, partly from fear I’ll be laughed out of the room for admitting I listen to not only country, but “soft”, “girly” country. This fear that enjoying “feminine” music makes me less of a “man” at best, and weird and/or creepy at worst, is an insecurity I’m still struggling, on an emotional and relational level, to shake. But that’s all bullshit, and I’m ready to admit that I thoroughly enjoy the music of many female artists, Lee Ann Womack among them. What that says about me is a thought for another time. I’ll let you be the judge.

I hope that my video can provide some insight into the greatness of Lee Ann’s album, and into my mind as well. I had a great time making the video, and am very proud of it, though also incredibly nervous about what people’s reception of it will be – or if there’s reception at all. I know you’re not supposed to care what people think about you, but caring what people think about me is basically my defining personality trait, driving every part of me, from my tastes to my ambitions to my interactions with others. Where I go from here, we will have to see.

The entire script for my video is pasted below. The video has very few deviations from the script.

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Some works of art speak to you, become a part of your life. You meet them right when you need them, and you can always return to them when you need comfort or inspiration. There’s no other art form where this connection is as deep as with music, and for me, there are few works of music as special as Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’.

Hello. I’m Cameron, also known as GambasTV. In this new series, Cameron’s Picks, I’ll be talking about music and movies that mean a lot to me. Works of art in my two favorite mediums that have enhanced, influenced and even changed my life.

When thinking of which albums to cover for this series, The Way I’m Livin’ was one of the first that came to mind, and one that was always calling out to me. It’s an album that I can always turn to when I need something comforting and empowering to listen to, one that’s as soft and mellow as it is intricate and powerful. It was the first country album I truly fell in love with, and without it there’s a good chance I wouldn’t listen to the genre as much as I do today.

Released in 2014, The Way I’m Livin’ is the eighth studio album by Lee Ann Womack, a Texas-born country singer best known for her 2000 hit “I Hope You Dance”. It was the first album of hers I’d heard. Indeed, it was the first time I’d heard of Lee Ann at all. I was born in England, growing up with Britpop as my soundscape, and so until I was a high schooler living in America, all but the most famous country artists – Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson – were alien to me.

That all changed when I started actively trying to expand my musical horizons in my late teens, seeking out recommendations mainly through year-end and greatest-of-all-time lists, especially Rolling Stone’s. I don’t much follow that magazine anymore, but I have them to thank for introducing me to many artists – classic and current – that I now rank amongst my favorites. But my Rolling Stone phase was more early high school, around 2010-2012. A bit later I discovered AllMusic, a fantastic music database – sorta like imdb for music – that also features editor’s reviews of pretty much every notable album in modern history, as well as consistent reviews of new releases.

It was on AllMusic that I discovered The Way I’m Livin’, as it had been given a 4.5/5 rating by critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, and was featured as one of the site’s Featured Releases near the time of its release. At the time, I was in the mood for discovering new music in genres I wasn’t familiar with, and for making new musical memories. That sense of random discovery, knowing it was more or less an album I’d stumbled upon that I wouldn’t have were I not in the right place at the right time, no doubt influences my love for it.

I remember quite clearly the first few times I listened to the album, which is something I can only say for a handful of records. At the time, I was a semi-regular player of League of Legends, though not a good one, as this video I made in September 2014 demonstrates. I’m a shameful multi-tasker, always wanting to kill two birds with one stone, and so I rarely play video games without listening to music at the same time. Indeed, I often play video games SO I can listen to music, because I’m too fidgety to just sit and listen to music on its own.

So in late 2014, when I was in the transition phase between high school and moving temporarily to Europe at the end of the year, I spent a lot of my quote-unquote “free time” (>implying any of my time was un-free) playing League while listening to new music. And of all the fantastic new music I discovered in this period, it was The Way I’m Livin’ that left the deepest impact.

I still remember very clearly the general feeling created when the moving images of League, a pretty intense, reflex-driven game where one is expected by the competitive community to always be keeping attentive, more so than any other video game I’ve played, clashed with the smooth, soulful, leisurely, wholesome sound of The Way I’m Livin’, an album that commands attention largely through grace and introspection, only bringing in driving percussion when it absolutely needs to. The tranquil mood the album put me in no doubt made my game worse than usual, but in those hours of reflection – of listening, and listening again, on Spotify of course, to an album that would fundamentally alter my perception of music, perhaps even the world – I found things far more important to me than trying to git gud at a game I was never going to master.

You see, amongst other things, The Way I’m Livin’ made me realize the importance of the passion and sincerity of the artists I listened to, as opposed to how much they related to me or agreed with me. Yes, having experiences, ideas or emotions to cling onto and relate to does help us appreciate artworks, but sometimes strength of vision – and honesty of individuality – is equally important in allowing us to empathize with the work. With this album, the fact that Lee Ann herself didn’t write any of the songs, and that they were each contributed by different writers, is a testament to how well the production came together, and how much of a vocal presence Womack is. It’s an album with a clear sound, intricately-woven themes, and a strong sense of dreamlike cohesion. And even though I can’t relate to it all, that cohesion is…captivating.

My point here is that, even though The Way I’m Livin’ is a blatantly and intrinsically spiritual album, and even though I myself am not a religious person, despite growing up around religion, rather than annoy me with its overt references to god and heaven, like other openly religious works (God’s Not Dead) have, and like it might for other fervently non- or anti-religious people, The Way I’m Livin’ spoke to me, made me feel a part of something bigger than myself. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, listening to it was – and is – quite a spiritual experience.

It’s important to note that, on The Way I’m Livin’, Lee Ann Womack was not the primary songwriter. Indeed, every single song on this album was written by another person, in almost every case written by a different person. Generally, I tend to prefer music that is deeply personal and expressive, so naturally a lot of my favorite music was fully written and even produced by the primary artist. However, in this case, the way that Lee Ann compiled and selected the songs for her album, and the passion with which she delivered its messages, lends it a sense of sincerity and individuality that transcends the fact that she didn’t actually write the songs.

It’s time I should start talking more specifically about the album itself, about the songs and Lee Ann Womack’s vocal performance. Now I’m gonna give a rundown of the songs on the album, and how they build towards its mesmerizing vision. Now, I don’t know music theory – can’t even play an instrument or anything – so this is based mainly on personal listens to the album, and my attempts to understand why it moves me so deeply.

We start with the aptly titled “Prelude: Fly”, an angelic, soft ballad that starts with a pleasant, driving acoustic guitar melody and features no percussion – indeed, no other instrumentation – at all. Indeed, the slight scratching of the loose acoustic guitar strings pretty much serve as the thumping of the percussion, driving the slow, close-eyes head bobbing induced by Lee Ann’s soulful cries about losing a loved one – and wanting to “fly” with them like angels.

The song is the perfect opener, introducing the mellow, introspective combination of calmly powerful vocals and laid-back instrumentation that defines most of the album, as well as the themes of love, loss and spirituality that Lee Ann will continue to explore. It also hints at a driving conflict of the album: the line “I know it’s wrong to long to be gone” foreshadows the juxtaposition of virtue and vice, spirituality and sin, that is central to the album: indeed, it’s what the title track, “The Way I’m Livin’”, and the likes of “Sleeping with the Devil” will later explore. It introduces an album that’s all about being yourself, recognizing your flaws, and expressing your inner beauty.

And that links to its heavy use of spiritual imagery, which is perhaps most obvious on second track “All His Saints”, one of the albums catchiest and fastest songs, a welcome contrast to the low-key opener. To freeform electric guitars and the tapping of tambourines, Lee Ann is optimistic and empowered, ensuring us that one day she’ll walk with Jesus in heaven. As much as I can’t relate to her beliefs, it’s hard not to get swept up in the confidence of the track, which kicks the album into pace without jarring too much with its soulful, mellow passion.

We then kick back to another soft, sweet song: “Chances Are”, where Lee Ann, to multiple layers of guitars that create a melancholy, slow-dance beat over simple bass and drum-lines, ponders on a potential romance as she watches someone across the bar. The bar (like the diner pictured on the album cover) is a classic Americana image of romantic loneliness, and in this song, Lee Ann accentuates the image’s power, reflecting on the hearts she’s broken – mainly her own, as evidenced by the incredible line “and I guess I broke my own heart every chance I had a heart to break” – and creating a vivid, heartwarming picture of relationship anxiety after a history of heartbreak. I’m not sure how much of the song is directly inspired by Lee Ann’s own experiences, but it helps craft the image of a modern, polished country genre passionately hearkening back to its roots, as Hell or High Water explores the effects of old western culture on the state today. It’s also another fantastic showcase for Lee Ann’s transcendent sincerity and love for singing.

Then we move onto title track “The Way I’m Livin’”, which builds on the admission of flaws and mistakes that drives a lot of the reflection of “Chances Are”, except this time with a much faster, heavier backing track. It opens suspensefully, instruments layering over each other one by one until Lee Ann comes in with a symbolic story about meeting the devil on the side of the road. In this case, it’s a meeting of temptation, the song exploring alcohol, partying, “lyin’ and a-’sinnin’”. One of the album’s more viscerally exciting tracks, it’s also its most exemplary of the exploration of Lee Ann’s dark, flawed side which is so important to the album’s classically spiritual concept. It’s got the sort of sly humor you’d expect from an old country fable, with the line “oh, mama, the way that I’m livin’, if I ever get to heaven it’s a dog-gone shame” being one of the album’s lyrical highlights. And the guitar solo and string section that crash out the song – hell yeah.

And then, just like that, we simmer back down to the leisurely, sorrowful piano melody of “Send it on Down”, one of my absolute favorite songs on the album. It’s another sad, moving reflection on loss, love and the passing of time, one built on quiet, creeping instrumental progression that accentuates Lee Ann’s vocals – and harmonies from a male backing singer I can’t currently identify – only when it serves the song’s power. Opening with matter-of-fact yet emotionally heavy lyrics about dad owning a hardware store and keeping the tone both directly personal enough to connect and vague and generalized enough to feel universal, it gives off an almost surreal feeling, reminding me somewhat of Twin Peaks, an effect another favorite modern country album of mine, Brandy Clark’s “Big Day in a Small Town” also thrives on. Going off of this dreamlike universality, the imagistic line “sitting in the bleachers at the football field”, which is so classically American small town, gets me every time. And, naturally, the song’s heavily spiritual as well, the main idea of the chorus being Lee Ann asking for Jesus to send on down guidance, support – something. Of all the songs on the album, this one feels the most timeless, and important.

Next we move onto the relentless “Don’t Listen to the Wind”, one of the album’s more driven songs, which deals with the memory of a former lover that Lee Ann can’t shake. It’s one of the more poetic songs in the album, or, at least, one of the ones where I had to actually read the lyrics, rather than just listening, to get an understand of them. But the chorus is great, implying that in the sounds of wind and rain, as she tries to sleep, Lee Ann can still hear the name of her former love haunting her. Tracing memories, it adds to the surreal feel of the album, and, to boot, it’s one of the louder, more intense tracks, though following a similar general progression – and harmony with an unidentified backing singer – as “Send it on Down”.

The opening of the next track, “Same Kind of Different”, features a tranquil vocal solo from Lee Ann, a recurring feature of the album’s bare, emotional sound. Steady percussion and strings accentuate later parts of the song, but in general it’s a pretty pure encapsulation of the album’s gorgeous, simple-but-effective country sound. Lyrically, it’s a pretty high-concept love song, Lee Ann singing about a lover that’s different, but in similar ways to her. It’s a fun, low-key track at the very middle of the album, as usual finding its most powerful moments when the music relaxes for a moment to let Lee Ann’s vocals do the talking.

Next we have “Out on the Weekend”, this beautifully smooth, wistful track about loneliness, longing and trying to move along in life that features some of the most indescribably catchy vocal delivery on the album. I’m not musically educated enough to explain why, but I can’t get enough of the way Lee Ann moves along the melody in lines like this: “think I’ll pack it in, and buy a pick up, and drive it down to LA.” It’s a moving track to close your eyes to while you slowly bob your head along, and it’s stunning how well it continues the consistency of the album’s sound, themes, and evoked images. The song, fun fact, was written by Neil Young, whose “Heart of Gold” is one of my favorite tracks.

Nightwind” continues the wistful mood, featuring minimal preliminary percussion and again allowing Lee Ann’s voice to shine. It’s perhaps her biggest belter on the album, as she sings about a true love she left and can’t go back to. It adds to the images of late-night reflection of “Don’t Listen to the Wind”, again using the wind metaphor to explore fleeting, longing memories. The particular effect it gives off reminds me of the feeling of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”, one of my favorite albums of 2016. The feeling of soft, nostalgic yearning is one that gets me every time in art, and on songs like “Nightwind”, it’s at its perfect state.

Slightly more upbeat and quirky in contrast yet nonetheless continuing the romantic imagism of the previous tracks, next we have “Sleeping with the Devil”, which brings back the spirituality built in earlier tracks and central to the album’s synthesis of classic country and modern livin’ and lovin’. It’s a very metaphorical song, again having Lee Ann admit to the darker side, though no less pleasantly and tunefully as on former tracks, despite it being of the twangier, more traditionally “country” or bluegrass songs on the album.

Then, late in the album, we have, for me, its strongest moment. On “Not Forgotten You”, which I might as well now call one of my favorite songs of all time considering how much I’ve listened to it removed from the album, Lee Ann delivers one of the catchiest, most gorgeous reflections on past love that I’ve ever heard. It’s got everything that makes the album great, but with a more accentuated guitar-and-fiddle-driven production: smooth, mellow instrumentation that allows Lee Ann’s voice to stand out, catchy line-to-line vocal delivery, a song progression that capitalizes on the power of the message, and a surreal combination of universal simplicity and genuine individuality that gives off a timeless, classic effect. It’s a pitch-perfect country song, and placed so well near the end of the album.

After “Not Forgotten You”, we jump right into the vibrant Kenny Price cover “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore”, one of the more immediately rhythmic tracks that eschews the stop-start-reflect motion of the rest of the album in favor of a determined, fast, repetitive rhythm of thrusting guitars and thumping drums. Now knowing it’s a cover of a 70s classic allows me to understand the sharp difference of lyrical perspective, but it’s probably the least vocal-centric song on the album, providing a perfect musical crescendo that Lee Ann comes along for the ride for. Indeed, it gives off the impression of a road trip, an effect added to by the setting-and-movement-implying title. It more or less builds to the album’s emotional climax, providing a bit of uplifting excitement that leaves you wanting more – perfect for the album’s penultimate song, as it leaves me in the mood to restart the thing and listen again, and again, and again.

But not before the wonderful closing track, “When I Come Around”, which caps off the album on a wholesome, determined note, as if the blissful road trip of the previous song has reached an optimistic high as Lee Ann looks to the future. It retains some of the lyrical reflection and melancholy of the album building up to it, but finds a more summery tone, Lee Ann singing about chasing the sun and assuring that she’ll come around. It’s a huge smile-inducer, a warm, bright ending to an album I can’t help but love. By this song, I’ve followed Lee Ann’s journey through life and love, and am rooting for her in this everything-will-be-ok empowerment tune. Her voice calmly guides us through the images and feelings of the closer, as acoustic guitars, rising strings and the album’s most excited drums put an exclamation point on an album largely made of commas and ellipses. And then, the last notes of the string section strike, and The Way I’m Livin’ is over, and I sit, every time, immensely moved and empowered by what I’ve just experienced. And I want to listen again, and again, and again.

The Way I’m Livin’ is an album I always come back to for inspiration. It’s so comforting, so ingeniously simple and passionately-delivered; so personal yet universal, so dreamlike yet grounded in real feelings, so cinematically progressed yet lush and mellow, and its sound, a soft-spoken yet confident traditionalist country with classic song structure yet a depth of focus that defies convention, is one of the most distinct in modern music. This album means a lot to me: it showed me that no matter the experiences of an artist, no matter their beliefs or style, music can speak to you in ways you don’t expect if it’s made with enough vision and sincerity and passion – passion for life and for music itself – and it, for a long time, has served as one of my most treasured pieces of empowerment and escapism. Combined with gorgeous album art, a strong sense of thematic and introspective purpose, and impeccable country production, it’s one of my favorite albums. And that’s why Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ is the first of Cameron’s Picks.

Well, everyone, I hope you enjoyed that analysis, and if you’ve stuck for the whole ride, thank you very much. There’s certainly a lot more I could say about this album, and I discover new things every time I listen, but I’ll leave you there for now. All I can say now is listen to The Way I’m Livin’, and hopefully it can give you some of the joy it’s given me. Stay tuned for more editions of Cameron’s Picks, with other albums, songs, films and more. And let me know in the comments what you think of the album, and what albums have influenced you – changed your life or provided continuing joy and inspiration. This has been Cameron for GambasTV.

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