Lyle’s Style

He’s not handsome. He can’t sing like Willie. He’s too smart and too shy. So why is Lyle Lovett a star?

October 1992By Comments

HE WALKS ACROSS THE STAGE CASUALLY, his left hand in his Armani pants pocket, but his strides are purposeful and his face is locked in a brooding grimace, as if he is late for a funeral. Lyle Lovett exudes mystery, and although the two thousand or so fans (most of them female) attending the concert at the Snowmass Conference Center just outside of Aspen, Colorado, are raising their beer cups and hollering mindlessly, they are here because something inexplicable about this man arrests their imagination. Just why did this singer-songwriter who emerged from the Texas folk circuit wear his hair, until recently, like a thatch of nuclear-radiated alfalfa sprouts? Just why does this native of Klein sing such traditional-sounding songs that, upon closer inspection, discuss the joys of taking one’s pony for a boat ride? Why does this slender, vulnerable-looking man write about shooting former girlfriends or asking them to “put down that fly swatter and pour me some ice water”? What is going on in Lyle Lovett’s mind?

That people seem fascinated with the way Lovett thinks means that he has succeeded without having to budge an inch. Lovett is an original, though he is also thoroughly Texan. Wryly surreal lyrical images notwithstanding, the themes of family and place form the bedrock for many of his songs. And while radio deejays and music critics resemble contortionists when they try to define his music, the Lovett sound fits neatly into the Texas singer-songwriter tradition, in which folk, country, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock, spiritual, and cajun influences have always shacked up together. As with other Texas musicians who revel in disparate regional sounds (among them George Jones, George Strait, and Nanci Griffith), Lovett was introduced to the world as a country performer—one with weird lyrics and hair to match, granted, but country nonetheless. Unlike the others, Lovett broke through to the pop market, the first Texan since Buddy Holly to become a pop star while keeping those traditions intact.

On the other hand, Lovett is as anomalous as a commercially acceptable musician can get. Standing there before the microphone, his hand still in his pocket, barely moving—Lovett admits he’s not much of a dancer—he cuts a figure that is all at once suave, ridiculous, extraterrestrial, nefarious, and heartbroken. If Mr. Spock could sing and lose the chili bowl cut, he would be Lyle Lovett, and all of these women would be staring at him while their boyfriends stand nearby, wondering, “Is it the hair?” In fact, it is impossible to resist Lovett’s face: Its long, tapered angularity suggests the elegance of an elephant tusk, with an almost diagonal mouth and ears that look like arrowheads and tiny slits of eyes that glow furtively, suspiciously, in the recesses. Like his eyes, his voice at first has a terse and almost dismissive quality to it—but that is merely Lovett’s own guardedness, his own fear of heartbreak. The closer you get to him, the more endangered he seems.

Yet the 34-year-old Lovett courts danger. When critics accused him of misogyny, Lovett responded on his third album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, with a deadpan version of “Stand By Your Man.” Just when the world started getting used to Lovett’s hair, even developing a perverse fondness for it, he cut it off. And now, on this tour, he showcases his newest album, Joshua Judges Ruth—a record that is far more brave than his label, MCA Records, might have preferred, given its thematic preoccupation with death and religion, but that the record company has nonetheless promoted with great fanfare. Both the album and the tour say, “Classify this, Bubba.” The show opens with a jazzy instrumental, the Large Band dressed in dark suits, casually self-absorbed. When it is Lovett’s turn to sing, the song is “Black and Blue,” a slow blues number that occupies the darkest possible corner of the genre: “Lipstick was everywhere/And you left her black and blue.” The song does not end so much as expire. From stage right, four figures appear: black gospel singers. Not a note of country has been struck. Not a word to the crowd has passed Lovett’s lips. But he has already said all he needs to say about who and what he is and isn’t.

After Lovett and his thirteen-piece band spellbind the crowd for two hours, they return to the stage for a final encore. The cello player, John Hagen, who has played with Lovett off and on for twelve years, can’t resist telling the person standing just offstage, “We’re gonna give ’em hell with this one.” The person Hagen has told this to is Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the Colorado-based practitioner of gonzo journalism. Thompson approvingly tips the margarita he smuggled in. The encore is “Pass Me Not,” a hymn that Lovett heard for the first time a few weeks back while shooting a music video inside a New York City church on East 118th Street. While Lovett and his band wail out the lyrics and the audience claps and sways like a revivalist congregation, Thompson stands next to the stage, punching the air, hollering as loud as he can, “Give ’em hell! Give ’em hell! Crush them! Crush them like dogs!”

Hunter Thompson introduced Lovett to the crowd at his Aspen performance last December—or rather, Thompson came onstage carrying a cooler full of beer and announced to the audience that Lovett was somewhere between the concert hall and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, “drunk out of his mind.” (Lovett does not drink to excess and was backstage at the time; otherwise the statement was completely accurate.) The two became friends as a result of Thompson’s developing an almost chemical dependency on Lovett’s music while writing his latest book, Songs of the Doomed, in which Lovett receives an acknowledgment. “It’s just amazing to imagine that someone like Hunter is out there listening to you,” Lovett says.

It is amazing, surely, to cast your music out into the void and find that it has stirred some famous heart. Yet Lovett’s career has been marked by his ability to make definite impressions. In 1984 the unknown Texas solo artist went to Nashville to sing backup vocals on Nanci Griffith’s first record, and during his first week there, he slipped a demo tape to American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers executives that won them over so thoroughly that the organization wasted no time in helping Lovett get a contract with MCA Records. At the beginning of 1988, a couple of months after his thirtieth birthday, Lovett crossed over to the pop charts with his second album, Pontiac, which featured “If I Had a Boat” and “She’s No Lady,” thereby establishing the acerbic Lovett sound to go with the tall-haired Lovett look. Two years later, renegade Hollywood director Robert Altman saw Lovett perform and immediately contacted the musician to discuss an acting part—Lovett’s triumphant big-screen debut as a shifty flatfoot in The Player.

Lovett’s talent for winning people over does not indicate, however, that he is ingratiating. Most of his songs concern what he calls “the male-female thing,” but there’s nothing warm and fuzzy about the romantic world he conjures up. In “M-O-N-E-Y,” Lovett’s gold-digging sweetheart flatly declares, “No finance/No romance.” In “She’s No Lady,” a wedding is a courtroom and the preacher is a judge who tells the groom, “I pronounce you 99 to life/Son she’s no lady she’s your wife.” A few years back, while having dinner with a longtime girlfriend, Lovett responded to her question of “Why don’t you ever write any songs that have me in it?” by grabbing a paper napkin and jotting what would become the first few lines of “She Makes Me Feel Good”: “She’s got big red lips/She’s got big brown eyes/When she treats me right/It’s a big surprise.” The girlfriend said thanks a whole lot and made no such further requests.

Lovett delivers these sentiments with a vocal style that on the one hand is familiarly high, nasal, smooth, and tuneful yet on the other is detached and often caustic. Lovett is not one of those singer-songwriters whose singing conveys some wailing burden: He isn’t much for confessing or wallowing. But from a remove, his voice implies great disappointment, loss, bitterness, and despair, as when he somberly intones the lyrics to “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”: “So now she is sitting at one end of the kitchen table/And she is staring without an expression/And she is talking to me without moving her eyes/Because she’s already made up her mind.” You can hear Lyle Lovett holding back, receding into the shadows. The effect is at times overwhelming.

Despite all this, it takes no effort at all to enjoy Lovett. Like the best of American pop craftsmen, he has a great ear for the persistent rhythm, the memorable chorus, and the melody that can rattle around in one’s head for weeks. His songwriting style owes much to the Texas solo artists whose albums he bought as a teenager and whom he later would interview as a Texas A&M journalism student—Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Willis Alan Ramsey—just as his smirky romantic outlook recalls two non-Texas influences, Randy Newman and Tom Waits. What has allowed Lovett to surpass his Texas mentors is the quality Robert Altman obviously saw in him: Unlike most singer-songwriters, Lovett possesses a sense of drama, a quality he never overplays. He’s neither classically handsome nor classically talented. But he’s a marvel of obscurity, and simply to look at him is to become lost in the many shades that define him.

OFFSTAGE, LYLE LOVETT IS SOMEHOW the same man who stands onstage in his Armani suit offering up a few darkly romantic insights into the human character. And yet here, on the touring bus that conveys us to the next arena four hours away, he is sweeter, smiling almost constantly, as if these private hours pose some relief, a light moment before he wades into the evening and sings about all those dead relatives and all those women who, despite his coy put-downs, have every ability to reduce him to emotional rubble. On the bus, he wears a denim work shirt and jeans with boots (the only footwear he apparently owns). He’s slender but not bony, and combined with his soft and mannered voice, he has a pacifist air. Still, he sits very close to me, leaning forward, his stare calm but unrelenting, his mouth slightly open, anticipating. If in Lovett’s music everything comes at a distance and from the hip—his imagination tilted, his sentiments askew—in his own life he leaves himself very much open to frontal assaults.

“It was always very mysterious to me how a musician made it, and I guess it still is,” he says. “When I was going to school at A&M and starting to play clubs, I just couldn’t figure out the process. I’d find myself wondering just how long a person had to stay at that level and how one broke out. I’d meet these people like Willis Alan Ramsey and Nanci Griffith who had somehow figured it out, and though that was the burning question for me, I didn’t want to be an imposition by asking. Maybe I asked a little bit.”

Lovett’s face widens and he laughs. He has always enjoyed jokes, and his music is filled with them. Oftentimes his audience doesn’t get the punch line, and he is criticized for his sacrilegious, woman-bashing lyrics. In fact, Lovett is both deeply (if privately) spiritual and intensely (if very privately) romantic. But being misunderstood seems to be something he can handle and occasionally even relish. Respect, however, is another matter.

“I really stayed in school as long as I did partly so I’d have something to tell people when they asked what I did,” says Lovett, who enrolled at A&M in 1975 and left seven years later with degrees in journalism and German. “I could say, ‘I’m a student,’ instead of saying I was a musician they obviously hadn’t heard of—though that got a little less uncomfortable when I started get ting more gigs. I had always loved music, but I had no illusions about making a career out of it. I wanted to feel like I was on the path to something, so I chose journalism, which I really loved. Though looking back on it, I just didn’t have the drive some of the other guys in my journalism classes did. My drive was to be a musician … and to stay away from anything resembling a full-time job.”

Lovett’s musical ambitions were his own: His mother and his father (both Exxon employees) were tolerant of whatever their only child wanted to do with himself, but they didn’t push in any particular direction. Contemporary music and literature weren’t predominant staples. Nor was Klein itself anything approaching an artistic oasis. It was at A&M that Lyle Lovett slowly succumbed to his dreams. On campus, he assisted in booking some of his favorite regional musicians. As a journalism student, he would subject these musicians to interviews that more closely resembled seminars, with Lovett the eager pupil. Lovett himself began playing shows in College Station and San Marcos. Later he graduated to the Kerrville Folk Festival and Houston’s Anderson Fair. But his big break came overseas. “I took some graduate courses in German,” says Lovett, whose interest in the language stems from his German ancestors who settled in Texas in the 1840’s, “and as a part of my foreign studies I lived in Rothenburg for part of 1979. I met a few musicians in Luxembourg and stayed in touch with them over the years. Through that, I got booked to play at this month-long music festival in Luxembourg in 1983. There was this country band from Phoenix there, J. David Sloan and the Rogues; they took pity on me and offered to back me up.”

The pairing proved fortuitous, as Lovett convinced the band to help him record a four-song demo tape. Once back in the States, Lovett took the tape with him to Nashville, a town that for the first time made him feel as if he possessed professional integrity. “Songwriters had respect there,” he says. “It was considered a legitimate career: You could tell a loan officer you wrote songs for a living and be taken seriously.” In a week’s time, ASCAP executives were moved to lobby the record labels on Lovett’s behalf.

So it was that in 1984 Lovett returned to Klein, a flat but verdant rural community some twenty miles northwest of Houston founded by his ancestors. It is fair to say that not many wealthy young musicians choose to live in the South Texas boondocks, in their grandparents’ house, on the same forty-acre property where their parents live. But Lyle Lovett is the kind of songwriter who needs something he can count on, something that will be there for him.

Klein isn’t as somnolent as it once was (though it still has little to stay up for), but many of Lovett’s old classmates remain there, as do the teachers from the parochial school where he received his first eight years of education. Lovett is a man at home with his past. The memories come out in fond torrents: “Church was the center of our community. Every Sunday after the service, we’d drive back home with Grandpa and listen to him critique the sermon. It was my signal early on that you could challenge things. I had the same twelve kids in my first eight grades of parochial school. Every day we’d have to memorize a new scripture. Memorize them and then forget them. For my parents, life was in the yard. They spent all their time planting and watering and cutting.” Lovett adds, snickering, “Yard work is what drove me out of Klein.”

“To Texas A&M?” I ask.

“Right.”

“Why A&M?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Because it was close to home,” he says.

LATELY THE BOY FROM KLEIN HAS BEEN spending much of his time in Hollywood. Last year, following his telephone conversations with Robert Altman, Lovett boned up by renting several Altman movies and then flew to Malibu to talk shop. Altman served the musician some coffee and home-baked bread and, with Hollywood types like Rachel Ward flitting in and out of the house, told Lovett that he had him in mind for two movies, actually. The first one was titled L.A. Short Cuts and would be based on various Raymond Carver short stories. Altman envisioned Lovett as the baker in the stark, tragic story, “A Small Good Thing.” But since they had first met, Altman had begun work on another movie, a vivisection of Hollywood called The Player. The script called for two police detectives—one to be played by Whoopi Goldberg, the other to be Lovett’s part if he wanted it. “It’s small, but we’ll make it bigger,” the director told the musician. Altman added that Lovett, who had no acting experience, need not feel nervous: The character he would play was sort of a bad actor anyway.

The part of the detective was not a singing role. Clearly Altman, like the rest of Lyle Lovett’s fans, couldn’t forget the face. For Lovett, it was an opportunity to watch a creative force entirely different from his own at work. “It was amazing to see,” says Lovett, his voice boyishly exuberant. “He was constantly making spur-of-the-moment creative decisions. In my first scene, Altman had me picking a flower, sniffing it, and then tossing it away disdainfully. Later, he comes to me and says, ‘The flower scene is okay, but why don’t we try something else? Why don’t we have you crushing a bug with your hand?’ And I did. And it was such a little thing, but it also became the defining feature of my character.”

As word of The Player spread throughout the industry, more and more actors began to show up on the set, hoping for a cameo role. It was a spectacle Lovett couldn’t resist watching, though after a few days, he feared he might be getting in the way and therefore didn’t show up to observe the filming one afternoon. The next day, Altman greeted him by saying, “Where were you yesterday? We missed you.”

Without his making any effort, Hollywood had come to Lyle Lovett—he himself was now a player. To moviegoers, there was something hilarious and yet perfectly natural about seeing Lovett on the big screen, hiding behind corners, wisecracking, crushing flies. To cinema’s beautiful people, he was an exotic creature to be stroked and courted. Though Lovett refuses to get a film agent, his Nashville-based managers have received several offers from the West Coast. The only one Lovett says interested him was the possibility of joining the TV cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “For a moment,” he says, looking positively Spock-like, “I thought of throwing it all away and joining the starship Enterprise.”

THE BUS ARRIVES AT RED ROCKS Amphitheatre a couple of hours before sound check, according to plan, like most everything else on this tour. Though Lovett enjoys telling people he has successfully avoided honest work all these years (his last stint as a laborer probably occurred in l974, when he worked at a Houston motorcycle shop), the aura of professionalism to the Lovett tour is obviously to his liking. His shows are punctual almost to the minute. His backup musicians dress sharply and have come to expect that any missed note will be a subject of later discussion. Before each show, Lovett makes out the set list, which is then distributed to the rest of the band by the road manager, Robert Bennett. At the end of each show, Lovett makes a decision about the encore and passes it on to Bennett, who in turn corrals the band and relays the information. Once the show is over, Lovett gives his crew the latitude to do what they wish. But Lovett has surrounded himself with veterans who will never be confused with Led Zeppelin in their road appetites. No one is going to jail on this tour.

The band piles out of the bus and wanders off to the backstage area. By four o’clock, two hundred or so Lovett fans are already sitting on the benches, screaming out his name. Lovett and the others are wearing their bus duds; they look to me like some Austin pickup band jamming in a park. During sound check, Lovett directs his band to play four songs that are not featured on tonight’s set list, and the crowd can tell by the musicians’ expressions that this is fun rather than work, which moves them to stand on the benches and dance—all except for one girl, who executes a continuous solemn we’re-not-worthy bow in Lovett’s direction. Lovett grins. Along with everything else, he is a gracious performer, supplying two-hour sets to even the most loutish crowds. When asked why, the wisecracker retreats to simplicity: “I just like to play.”

After sound check, there is dinner backstage. Lovett and I eat the catered cajun food and talk about the Mexican food in Austin. Lovett enjoys the road, especially touring by bus, and he says he does not vacation well; still, he can be coaxed into homesickness with little effort. When he says good-bye to me and retreats into a dressing room adjacent to the band’s communal room, I cannot shake the feeling that he will spend his time there sitting back with his eyes closed, thinking about his grandparents’ house in Klein.

A few minutes later, I look up to see James Gilmer, Lovett’s percussionist and longtime right-hand man, standing over me. “Lyle wants to see you in the dressing room,” he says.

I open the door. Lovett is standing in a sleeveless undershirt and jeans before a rack of perhaps fifteen suits. He turns and smiles briefly. “Help yourself,” he says, pointing to a tray of juice, mineral water, and beer. He’s thinking about the show, the set, the faces, note by note, word by word. “Every show is different,” he told me on the bus, “and the moment you believe otherwise is when you’re bound to screw up.” Now Lovett is pondering the differences, crafting this new evening in his imagination and willing it to come true. Suddenly his look is almost beseeching. “I hope you’ll do a better job than I have of explaining to people what my music is,” he says. “It makes sense to you, doesn’t it? You’re a Texan.”

That night, to me and to six thousand Colorado fans, the music makes perfect sense. After the instrumental opener, Lovett saunters across the stage, his left hand in his pocket, lost it seems in his gray musings while the crowd speaks to him in one unending shriek. We hear blues from his voice. Two songs later the four gospel singers launch into “Church,” the great Dixie spiritual shuffle off of Joshua Judges Ruth. Then come songs that could be described as country, others as desolate folk ballads, others as pure pop. Yet it all pours out of Lovett, who stands unchanging as he has always stood, this freakishly unalterable product of tradition and reckless imagination—stands there smiling in spite of himself, for tonight everything is wonderful.

And though tonight there’s no Hunter Thompson or Robert Altman in the crowd, Lovett’s great-aunt, who has a house in Dillon, has made it to the show. After the performance, he finds her backstage with her daughter. Lyle Lovett reaches for his family, smiling and hugging, before he’s finally jostled by a brace of MCA Records employees and asked to sign T-shirts, CDs, and photographs, all of which he seems happy to do. Only when the backstage area clears and the equipment load-out commences does Lovett’s high from the performance begin to diminish. Eventually he turns away and retreats to his dressing room, head down, brooding again. Another night.

Inside his dressing room he puts on his denim work shirt and his jeans. He zips up his suitbag. Outside, the bus is waiting. Then he looks up, and his face sports that great Lovett expression of puzzlement, amusement, and barely concealed regret. “It’s so strange,” he says. “You stand up there and play for all these people. And you don’t meet any of them. It’s just very strange.”

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