The Improbable Rise of Lyle Lovett

After a career singing his own sad, quirky songs, he's playing tribute to the eccentric bunch of redneck rockers who taught him all about Texas music more than twenty years ago.
Shot in New York City, September 12, 2007
Photograph by Peter Yang

In the lobby of a small, exclusive hotel on Manhattan’s East Side, a limo driver and a bellman quietly discuss the whereabouts of Lyle Lovett. “Have you seen him?” asks the driver.

The bellman nods. “Came through just a few minutes ago.”

“Was he with his friend?” asks the driver with a slight, coded smile.

The other’s smile is smug with fresh knowledge. “No. Another friend.”

I find him upstairs, in his suite. He comes forward in a black shirt and trousers with a handshake offered and his long mouth parted in a grin. The man who married movie star Julia Roberts—and became an inspiration for every guy who ever thought himself homely—is slender with a large craggy head. His distinctive broomcorn shock of hair is lightly oiled, and at forty, he shows a little gray in the sideburns. Many women have told me they find Lyle Lovett very attractive. He is vain enough about his curious looks to tell photographers he favors the left side of his face. The left cheek is deeply furrowed, and he cocks the eyebrow with sly effect.

Lovett and I have communicated and made overtures in the past but never met. The occasion this August day is the release of his seventh album, Step Inside This House (Curb/MCA). The two-disc, 21-song set contains none of Lovett’s own material but is a tribute to the Texas songwriters who shaped his style—among them, Guy Clark, Michael Martin Murphey, Walter Hyatt, Steven Fromholz, Townes Van  Zandt,  and Willis Alan Ramsey. It’s an indication of Lovett’s stature in the music business that he can release a double album of songs written by relatively unknown songwriters. But he has often done the strange and seemingly impossible in his career, defying every category and format yet still selling millions of albums and packing concert halls—despite rarely getting on the radio. Almost in spite of himself, Lyle Lovett is a star. For me, the songs on Step Inside This House bring a rush of nostalgia for a magic time in Austin 25 years ago, long before Lovett’s hairdo became a national topic of conversation. “The first time I encountered these songwriters was reading about them in your book,” Lovett tells me. “I learned to play the guitar listening to some of these songs. For me, this record is going back to the beginning. It’s kind of like taking stock and starting over.” lovett rests his arms on a conference table and watches me take materials out of a briefcase. “It’s interesting to be introduced to people by reading about them,” he remarks, “and then learn about them by listening to their work. No matter how well you get to know them later, there’s something about that quality they never lose.”

My book, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, grew out of an article published in this magazine in 1973, the first year of its existence. My publisher was David Lindsey, a genteel man who would later go on to write best-selling crime novels. We thought that we were onto the hottest cultural uprising since Haight-Ashbury. As I chased between night spots in Austin, Dallas, and Houston and wrote about musicians with their records blaring on my stereo, Lindsey pestered me for a title. I could roughly define this new Texas music—a fusion of rock and roll, country and western, folk, blues, and gospel—but I couldn’t name it. An Austin radio station that aired the music called it “progressive country.” To me that sounded like some political naïf’s wishful thinking. One day in Lindsey’s office I announced a breakthrough. I waved my hand like a band director, indicating the rough spots that could be filled in later: “Da duh da duh da duh . . . of Redneck Rock.”

It may be the only original idea I have ever had, and I still don’t know what it means, exactly. But the live music scene centered in Austin seemed to have a strange quality that brought adverse elements together. Hippies and cedar choppers were kicking up their heels in the same dance halls. My book captured some of that, particularly in the chapters that profiled the singer-songwriters. I thought afterward that I should have learned more about their musicianship and printed fewer of their lyrics, but with the benefit of even further hindsight, I was right to do it the way I did. It really was more about language than guitar licks. The songwriters who grabbed young Lyle Lovett’s attention crafted some exceptional poetry. Unfortunately, the handful of radio stations that aired this crossbred Texas music soon moved on to other formats. Commercially abandoned, the musicians who had been celebrities in Austin were unable to do with their careers what Lovett has accomplished with his. Many of them left Texas—Clark, Murphey, Van Zandt, Hyatt, Ramsey, Gary P. Nunn. Jerry Jeff Walker eventually salvaged his livelihood by sobering up and becoming a cult figure on college campuses. First B. W. Stevenson, then Hyatt and Van Zandt died before their time. Kinky Friedman can still bring down a house with his outrageous tunes, but he prospers because he writes best-selling mystery novels featuring a wise-guy detective named Kinky. Willie Nelson was the only one of the redneck rockers who truly became a national figure, and he had laid the floor for that with his Nashville songwriting in the fifties and sixties. Austin was permanently established as a live music mecca and proving ground for performers on their way up, but the scene I wrote about withered just as quickly as it had flowered.

Steve Fromholz was one who stayed in town and kept playing. Twenty-five years ago he seemed poised for some measure of stardom. He was handsome and funny, had a fine baritone, and was a splendid songwriter. But the fashions of music passed him by. He has carried on as an actor, a wilderness white-water guide, and a somewhat jaded folksinger, cracking jokes about the “great progressive-country scare.” In those days he was

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