Evan Smith: You were in Austin for a week in March—first to be honored for your film work by the Texas Film Hall of Fame and then to play a show at South by Southwest. At this point in your career, do you think of yourself as a singer who acts or as an actor who sings?
Lyle Lovett: I definitely think of my career as a musical career. Every day for me is trying to figure out how to write a song, to write one so that I can perform it.Going out on the road and playing is how I make a living. And I love to do that.
ES: So the acting is something that just happens to take up a portion of your time.
LL: I’ve been really lucky to take part in some incredible movies, but it’s not something I pursue. I don’t think of myself as an actor, though in getting to do some of these movies, I’ve grown to really admire actors. Getting to see how people work, to see how much there is to it and how skilled actors actually are at acting, has been an education. It’s been fascinating to me.
ES: How did you get your first movie role? If I’m remembering correctly, it was in The Player.
LL: Actually, the very first thing I got to do was something else. It was 1983. I was out of school, playing half a dozen clubs around Texas every month or six weeks, and I got a call from Tim Leatherwood, at Anderson Fair, the famous acoustic music room in Houston. A movie-of-the-week was shooting in the area, and they needed somebody to sing a song. They were going to have auditions at the old Allen Park Inn, on Allen Parkway, which is where all the productions seemed to camp out. I went over there and stood by the swimming pool while the director, an English guy from New York named Anthony Page, sat in one of the pool chairs as several of us took turns singing songs. And he gave the part to me. The credit was “Singer at Beach.”
It was the sequel to Bill—it was called Bill: On His Own—and Mickey Rooney was in it. He was in town doing a play, so they were shooting it in Galveston. They had dressed up the seawall to look like Venice Beach, and I was sitting there, playing and singing, as Mickey and Dennis Quaid were walking by. Because of the singing part, I was able to get my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card. It was really cool.
ES: The opportunity to be in another movie didn’t present itself for another eight or nine years.
LL: No, it didn’t, until Robert Altman came to a show we did. Tim Neece, who was managing Rickie Lee Jones, put together a summer tour in 1990 in which we played outdoor amphitheaters, including the Greek Theatre, in Los Angeles. Altman’s granddaughter had talked her grandparents into coming to the show. A couple of months later, after the tour was over, the phone in my kitchen rang, and it was Altman. I couldn’t believe it. He said, “Hi, this is Bob Altman. You wanna be in a movie?” It was exactly like that. I said, “Uh, sure.” He was calling about Short Cuts, which he was working on before The Player came up. He told me all about it, and he asked if I was familiar with the [Raymond] Carver stories [that inspired the movie]. Of course I was. But then Short Cutswas preempted by The Player, and he included me in thatas well.
ES: And there you are.
LL: I was very excited. When I was a kid, I went to a Lutheran school, and my folks were counselors for the youth group. They had a reputation for being a little liberal. They would have meetings once a month and plan activities, like going to the movies. Some of their movie choices were a little racy. In the seventh grade they took me to see M.A.S.H., an R-rated movie directed by Altman. So, you know, a few years later, to actually hear from him …
ES: You got to work alongside Whoopi Goldberg in The Player. What was that like?
LL: She made me feel as though I’d known her my whole life. She was so reassuring and helpful. She was like one of those great teachers who give you the confidence to feel you can do something or can learn something as opposed to making you feel like you can’t.
ES: I’m guessing Altman was the same way.
LL: Exactly the same. He treats you like you can do it. He assumes you can do it. And then you can.
ES: You’ve now done four movies with him: The Player, Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, and Cookie’s Fortune.
LL: And I did the music for Dr. T and the Women.
ES: You were also in a few non-Altman films, including The Opposite of Sex. I wonder if that was a big leap for you, having gotten comfortable with Altman’s particular way of working.
LL: It really was. My first thought was “Why would somebody else want to hire me?” And my second was “What’s this going to be like?” Don Roos [the director of The Opposite of Sex] turned out to be wonderful, nurturing, and smart—all the things that make a great, insightful person.
ES: Any plans to do more non-Altman movies?
LL: If the right opportunity comes along. It’s fun to be in a movie and do all that pretend stuff, to be able to act out something that’s imaginary. Playing music or writing songs can be an isolating experience. Even if you’re out on the road, playing five or six nights a week—which we have to do when we go out with a large band, just to sustain it—you get in your own world. You don’t always work with other performers; even if you’re on a bill with somebody else, just as a function of travel and sleep, you don’t always get to see somebody else’s show. Whereas I love how everybody works together on a movie. It’s such a collaboration.
ES: But hasn’t your whole creative life been about collaboration? It’s not Lyle Lovett; it’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. It’s a group effort. You’re a chief, obviously, but you act like just another member of the tribe.
LL: I’m partners up there onstage with everybody, and that’s one thing I enjoy. This is me being a dime-store psychologist, but maybe it’s from not having brothers and sisters growing up. I would always have to organize playdates with my pals, who would come over to the house. It feels sort of the same. It’s immensely gratifying to work with people who are trying to do their best at what they do toward a common end. And whether it’s an arrangement or the performance of a single song, I just love the feeling of watching three or four or sixteen people all working together.
ES: Some people at your level, having achieved what you’ve achieved, are insincere when they praise the little guys. You’ve managed to maintain a real level of humility with regard to other people’s contributions to your success.
LL: Let me tell you, I’ve worked with some of the best players anywhere. And we’re a couple of chairs deep in the band at every instrument. We have to be, because our people do work with other people, and not everyone is available every time. Matt Rollings, for example, has always played piano on my recordings. But last year, when we went on tour, he got asked by Mark Knopfler to come out on his tour, and it was, like, a year long and several continents. So we got a piano player from Los Angeles named Jim Cox, who actually used to play with Knopfler but developed some sort of inner-ear thing and can’t fly anymore, to come out with us. And, you know, Jim is amazing. So to get to play with Matt Rollings and Jim Cox as well—it’s so cool.
ES: It’s all still exciting to you, twenty years after the release of your first record?
LL: Sure it is. I get even more excited about a good idea now than I used to, maybe because they’re fewer and farther between. I get very excited about something new and hearing it come to life.
ES: How did you know how to do this?
LL: I don’t know. I still don’t know how to do this! You know, it’s like all of life. It’s a constant process of trying to figure it out every day.
ES: Did it ever occur to you as a kid—growing up in Klein, in the Lutheran church, in that very nurturing environment—that you might one day become this guy?
LL: No, but I didn’t have a better idea. I always knew growing up that I loved home. I identified very strongly with my relatives. I have eleven first cousins on my mom’s side of the family; they’re like brothers and sisters.
ES: Many of them lived right there with you.
LL: Yeah. Grandma and Grandpa gave each of their seven children a couple acres, a corner of the place to build on, which was not an unusual thing. It still happens in rural communities.
ES: The family was not only emotionally close—
LL: But physically close. And so I always felt very strongly about the place and always dreamed of trying to hang on to it, of living there. And that actually came to pass.
ES: How big was the original piece of land?
LL: My grandpa’s place is about 250 acres, and we have about 200 acres of it left. More than 160 acres of it were sold out of the family after my grandmother died, in 1980. It was about the time the oil bust happened. Development had been going crazy in the late seventies, but then it ground to a halt, and the investment firm that had bought the land didn’t do anything with it. They didn’t sell it to a developer like they had planned to. It was in 1995—and I’m serious, it’s the thing I’m most proud of—that I was able to buy it back.
ES: You still have other family on the land.
ES: And you’re still close, physically as well as emotionally.
LL: Exactly. My parents lived next door to my grandparents, and now I live in my grandparents’ house, so my mom is my neighbor through the pasture to the west.
ES: You probably see her a little bit.
LL: Not as much as you’d think. My mom is 76 years old.
ES: Good health?
LL: Good health and very active.
ES: It was her brother who was at the center of that accident with the bull a few years back.
Of the seven in their family, they’re the only two left. He’s 71 now, and his name is Calvin. Calvin Klein.
ES: I’m sure he’s heard of the other one.
LL: Oh, he loves it. He always points out that he’s older—he’s the original—and that he’s not going to sue the guy. My uncle Calvin is an outgoing character who never meets a stranger. He’s always made a living in agriculture. When I was growing up, my grandfather was a vegetable farmer, but Uncle Calvin had a dairy, and after his dairy business, he started running beef cows on the place. And he still has his cow operation. He runs about eighty mama cows right there at home. He’s worked that place, our place, and made his living from it his entire life.
ES: You could live anywhere. You’ve got a reason to be in any big city in the world. You’re successful enough, and the work that you do takes you to those places. And yet at the end of the day, you return to Klein.
LL: What makes home are the people in your life, the people you love and care about and want to be near. I don’t get to spend as much time at home as I’d like. I’m fortunate in my work to be able to satisfy any sort of travel urges that I might have. Getting to play music and ride around on the bus and see the country or go to other countries goes a long way in satisfying your wanderlust.
ES: I’d imagine it would get old after a while.
LL: I’m immensely grateful to the people who support us, who come to our shows and allow me to travel in the way that I like. It’s beyond belief. In the old days, we all made less money, and we all shared a room with somebody else in the band. Now we can stay in places where you can go to your room and get a great few hours of sleep because the linens are really nice. You know, the thread count of the sheets at the Four Seasons is really good. It’s like a vacation.
ES: How much time do you spend on the road?
LL: We typically do about ten weeks. This summer we’ll play some of our favorite outdoor-type venues.
ES: Tell me two or three of your favorites.
LL: Oh, gosh. Anywhere there’s a good crowd. I’ve always enjoyed doing shows at the Backyard, in Austin. It’s just such a nice feeling in the audience.
ES: Good-sized crowd.
LL: Really nice-sized crowd. And appropriate press. There are a few markets in the country that have great radio support for my kind of music, in the way that KGSR and KUT operate here in Austin. Places like Seattle, with a station called the Mountain. The Bay Area, with KFOG. KCRW, in Los Angeles, does a great job of supporting us, but you don’t feel the impact quite as much in a city that big.
ES: It’s the most mass of the mass-media markets.
LL: Right. In Los Angeles, as I said earlier, we’ll play the Greek Theatre, which is a nice place. And if we have 3,500 or 4,000 people, I’ll be thrilled.
ES: Is that the biggest crowd you play for these days?
LL: The last few years at Red Rocks, which is another one of my favorite places, near Denver—due in large part to KBCO, which is very much like KGSR—we’ve had 6,000 to 8,000 people. At Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia, we’ve been lucky to have 7,500 the last several years. It’s really nice to be able to do that. We can’t do it everywhere, but those markets have been consistently strong over the years. Minneapolis—St. Paul is a really strong area. Chicago, because of WXRT, is really, really strong.
ES: You know these markets intimately, and you know those stations. You obviously take a great interest in this aspect of the business.
LL: It’s interesting to me. Those are relationships that you develop over the years. There are people that you get to know and relationships that you value, and even if it’s not always a social relationship, even if it’s strictly a business relationship, you have to appreciate people. I know folks from all of those radio stations. One of the on-air personalities at WXRT is a guy named Tom Marker, and he announced our very first Large Band show that we did in Chicago, back in 1988. And he’s announced every show we’ve done there since. He’s just great to us. After a while, we get to know their families and watch their kids grow up. It’s nice to get to go around every year and check in with them.
ES: Are you recording now, or are you working on anything new?
LL: I’m not recording, but I have some new songs.
ES: What’s the plan?
LL: The plan, up until this morning, was to get enough songs together and then go in and record, but I might go in before. I’m tempted to try to record some before we go out on the road this summer, just to get started, partly because of going to hear Neil Young speak at South by Southwest.
LL: He talked about his latest record, Prairie Wind, and how he had gone to Nashville. One of his friends had said, “Well, come on down,” and he said, “But I’ve got one song.” And his friend said, “Well, come on down and record it. You’ve got to start somewhere.” So he went down there to record, and while he was there, he wrote seven songs in seven days.
ES: So it’s possible that you’ll go in, earlier than you expected, and have this creative burst.
LL: It could happen. The idea of just getting started is motivating.