Since his first album, in 1986, the Klein-born singer and actor, who is now 54, has been under contract to Curb Records, led by former California lieutenant governor Mike Curb. Now, with his fourteenth album, RELEASE ME, Lovett’s contract is finally up.
I suspected the title of the new CD might have more to do with the end of your deal with Curb than with the Ray Price hit. Seeing the cover [Lovett encircled by a lariat] clinched the deal.
It’s just kind of a joke. Curb Records has been great to me. Early on, MCA heard my tape. They passed on me. In those days Curb always affiliated with a major label, and it wasn’t until Curb brought the very same recording back to MCA that I got signed. So I owe my career to them. It’s a little smart-aleck, but I couldn’t resist.
There’s been a lot of change in the music industry. I expect you’ve been eyeing a lot of these people who have taken control of their own careers with envy?
No, not envy. Everybody’s career is different. In this new age of being able to talk to the whole world at once, the possibilities are staggering, really, to be able to do things yourself. But I’ve always enjoyed my relationship with the record company—especially in the early days, at MCA in Nashville, when I knew everybody that worked in the building. MCA in Los Angeles—same thing. That meant a lot to me, to feel a part of the team. So I don’t know if I want to be completely on my own. I haven’t figured out what I want to do next. But the possibilities are far greater than they have ever been.
There are only a couple of originals on the new album. The writing process seems to come slowly to you.
Yeah, I’m not the kind of writer that can wake up and say, “Okay, I’m gonna write a song today,” and have that song be the kind I would want to record. The songs of mine that I end up liking are songs that come from real experience. They’re like chapter titles in my life. I struggle with writing. Writing is hard. And the hardest part of writing is having a good idea to write to. I didn’t have enough of my own songs that I was happy with to make an entire record of originals, and I wanted to do something that was fitting, that brought this chapter of my career to an appropriate end, and that was to finally record songs that I’ve played my whole career. I learned “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” in 1976. And Tommy Elskes taught me “White Boy Lost in the Blues” and turned me on to the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee album it’s off of, which I played over and over. I learned “Isn’t That So” in 1978. I learned “Dress of Laces,” “One Way Gal,” and “Keep It Clean” from John Grimaudo, and I learned “Understand You” watching Eric Taylor play it in 1978. “Release Me” is really the only song that was new to my experience, other than having listened to my parents’ Ray Price record.
You credit these and other writers, like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, as inspiring you. But your blend of country, blues, jazz, gospel—it’s familiar to everyone now but didn’t really exist before you started recording.
You’re giving me way too much credit. The only reason I don’t sound like the people that I mentioned is ’cause I can’t. I would if I could.
Guy Clark wouldn’t make a big-band record.
I didn’t really either. But I like those kinds of horn arrangements, and I really love those Ray Charles records from the fifties with the small horn section. I listened to my parents’ records—Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Glenn Miller, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard. In the modern world, my God, it’s amazing the access we have to everything. I just think it’s not a realistic idea that a person would be drawn to only one thing.