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.