Joe Ely





Sunny Sweeney

When discussing their creative process, most songwriters struggle a bit. They’ll tell you whether they start with music or words,whether they prefer working alone or collaborating.

Whether they sit down with an instrument and write for prescribed periods, like novelists, or simply wait for inspiration to come, then hurry to scribble it down or record it before it disappears.

But singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett has literally analyzed the issue — or tried, at any rate. Invited by the Connecticut Forum to discuss the question, “Where does creativity come from?” he appeared on a panel in November with Pulitzer Prize finalist Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, performance artist and filmmaker Miranda July, director of Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Rhodes scholar Jonah Lehrer, who writes about the relationship between neuroscience and creativity. Randy Cohen, who wrote “The Ethicist” column for the New York Times and earned Emmys for his work on Late Night With David Letterman, served as moderator.

Reminiscing about the evening a few days before Christmas, Lovett barely references his participation.

"If you're gonna mention me in the context of that deal, find out a little bit about Jonah Lehrer," he says, nursing a nasty cold he got while on the road with his Acoustic Group. (You come in contact with so many people, it's hard to avoid, he says, trying to stifle a cough. "I don't care how sick I get when I'm at home, but I hate when it happens on the road.")

Talking up Lehrer’s credentials, Lovett says, “He’s a really smart young guy. We would talk in these sort of generalities, and he’d say, ‘Well, actually,’ and then back up what we were sayin’ with science. It was really fascinating.”

Lovett, whose pop and country Grammy wins don’t begin to characterize the genre-defiant sound of his Texas-rooted blues/jazz/soul/gospel/swing music, never even mentions his mid-evening performance of Guy Clark’s “Step Inside This House,” the title track from Lovett’s 1998 album of songs by Texas songwriters who influenced him.

But in a YouTube clip, he tells the audience, “I brought my guitar, because initially I was afraid to speak and wasn’t sure I’d be able to.” After getting the intended laugh, he sets up the song for more than two minutes, telling how Clark moved from Monahans to Houston and fell in with Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt, and how they encouraged him to write songs.
"I learned how to fingerpick playin' songs off Guy's first record, Old No. 1," Lovett continues in his confessional way. "I could play every song on that record at one time. This is a song that he says is the first song he ever wrote. And he never recorded it. He was nice enough to let me record it. I always wondered why he didn't."
Clark and Lovett have appeared together many times, including tours with Joe Ely and John Hiatt. But apparently, despite Lovett’s interview-like onstage questioning of his fellow performers during these “song pulls” (the Texas A&M grad has degrees in journalism and German), he never got around to asking Clark that question.
"Finally, one night in the elevator at the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, B.C.," Lovett relates to the Connecticut audience, "I'd ended the show with this song, and we were alone in the elevator, and he said, 'I wish you'd stop doin' that song.' And I said, 'Well, why, Guy? I love it.' And he said, 'There's a reason I never recorded it.' And he started pickin' apart the song, from just a songwriting standpoint. One of my very favorite songs. So I play this tonight as an example of someone's very first work.
"It's a song about invitin' somebody into your life," Lovett explains."We thank you folks for doin' that to us tonight"

Here I Am
That story, and his take on the night itself, speak volumes about Lovett, revealing clues about his keen mind, quest for knowledge and commitment to acknowledging his influences, but also exposing what is, perhaps, his most outstanding trait (in addition to his prodigious talents and determination): his unwavering humility. Not only did he use the forum to highlight a song by someone else instead of one of his own — and to smoothly thank the audience for being there — he later minimized his contribution to the dialogue, summarizing it thusly: “We basically talked about how everyone’s creative process is different, and about the things that you normally talk about in a discussion about creativity, which is: The honest truth is that people do what they do and are who they are, and you don’t know how you do it. I mean, I just don’t really have a clue. If you knew how you did it, you would never struggle with it.”
It takes a big man — or in his case, a tall Texan — to admit that, even at this point in his career, he’s not above struggling. And he also uses every opportunity, from albums to interviews, to honor his mentors (even if he refuses to back off from doing their material). He also pays much respect to those who admire his work, and those who help make it possible. Lovett wouldn’t dream of not introducing his band, or acknowledging how grateful he is for his fans’ support. Reading his tweets and Facebook posts is like scrolling through a collection of thank-you notes, sprinkled with photos of all the fine venues he and his various band incarnations get to play and the fine people they meet along the way.
Talk to Lovett about career events and accolades, and he’ll always define them in terms of the “extraordinary” and “amazing” talents he got to interact with or the learning experiences they provided. Of appearing at the Kennedy Center Honors, the presidential lifetime achievement awards for performing artists at which he’s serenaded Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and, in 2007, Brian Wilson, Lovett recalls, “April [Kimble, his girlfriend of 14 years] and I were in the receiving line at the reception at the White House before the event, and we were waiting to say hello to the Bushes. We were with [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma and his wife and his daughter, and to be able to hang out and make small talk with Yo-Yo Ma for 30 minutes, it’s an extraordinary opportunity.”
The same goes for winning four Grammy Awards; for those keeping track, he has earned golden gramophones for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for 1989’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band; Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for his 1994 duet with Al Green on “Funny How Time Slips Away”; Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for his 1993 rendition of “Blues for Dixie” with Asleep at the Wheel on A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys; and Best Country Album for 1996’s The Road to Ensenada.
"You know what they say about just being nominated itself — it's really true," Lovett claims. "That pat on the back from people who are doing the same thing you're doing, it means a tremendous amount. It makes you feel like, 'OK, I shouldn't be embarrassed for doing this. I'm OK; I'll keep doin' it."
And ditto his 2005 Texas Medal of Arts Award and the Americana Music Association's inaugural Trailblazer Award (2007); singing the national anthem before game 4 of the 2010 World Series (“there’s not a bigger stage in the world. What an extraordinary opportunity”); performing at the White House for several administrations; his current one-year term as the Texas State Musician and upcoming inauguration into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame; and even earning more than $104,000 in prize money from reining competitions with his beautiful palomino, Smart and Shiney (who has his own Facebook page).
"Those are wonderful recognitions. And I just feel gratitude," he offers. Even Smart and Shiney gets the credit when it comes to reining. "My horse is always better than me," Lovett told an equestrian reporter at the April 2011 Ariat Kentucky Reining Cup competition.
See a pattern here? He even demurs when questioned about his acting career, which includes appearances in films directed by Robert Altman, Angelica Huston and Terry Gilliam; episodes of the TV shows Mad About You and Castle; and performing Shakespeare with a cast including Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Martin Sheen, Catherine O’Hara, William Shatner, David Ogden Stiers and Helen Hunt. “It was really interesting to be around these veteran theater actors,” he says of his stints with the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. “To get to drop in every now and then and learn somethin’ about it is really great fun. To be associated peripherally with a great company like that … is a real privilege.” (It should be noted that it’s not a typical Shakespeare company; its motto is “no tights” and its logo is a pair of leggings in the circle-with-a-slash “no” symbol.)
Lyle Lovett
Photo by Rodney Bursiel
Good Intentions
Despite hobnobbing with some of the world’s most sparkling glitterati (including that very famous and beautiful movie star he married and divorced in the ’90s, and even the first dog, Bo, with whom he was photographed during a recent White House tour), Lovett still has an almost bashful, aw-shucks attitude. It’s not an act. Those familiar with him agree he is, quite possibly, the most genuinely humble person they know.
Lyle Lovett, simply put, has class. He doesn’t write middle-finger songs (unless they’re sarcastic), and it would be hard to imagine him even thinking of raising his to a photographer, a la Cash — or anyone else.
"That was apparent from the first," says Gruene Hall talent booker Tracie Ferguson, who gave Lovett his earliest gigs there. "Out of everybody that I know, he's certainly the classiest, and probably one of the most admirable guys that you'll ever meet."
It’s the kind of class that goes beyond dressing well, though he does that, too, almost always stepping onstage in fine suits (he’s also done photo shoots for Ariat jeans). It also goes beyond mere politeness, though the only son of William and Bernell Lovett is impeccably mannered and a true gentleman. (Says Eric Taylor, another early influence and friend of Lovett’s parents, “His mother and father were the closest things to saints that I’ve ever met in my life.”)
It’s the kind of class exuded by someone who moves behind the scenes, smoothing the way for others without seeking credit or payback. Kat Edmonson, a young jazz singer he’s mentoring, says she won’t forget just how well — and how quietly — he took care of her after inviting her to open for his Large Band during their summer 2010 tour. That was before he showcased her on The Tonight Show, bringing her on to help sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” They wound up recording the Frank Loesser charmer for his new album, Release Me, as well as for Songs for the Season, an EP he released in December for which they also duetted on the Vince Guaraldi classic, “Christmastime is Here.”
Edmonson, who splits her time between Austin and New York, fondly recalls when she first sang with him. He called in November 2009 and asked if she would accompany him on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — that night — at Bass Concert Hall in Austin. “We did it cold,” she says. “It was so great and so magical. … I told him what a big fan I was, and one day I came home and there was a thank-you note for performing with him and a box with his discography on my doorstep.”
Lovett also got a part for Edmonson written into When Angels Sing, filmed last spring in Bastrop with Harry Connick Jr., Friday Night Lights star Connie Britton and a large cast of Texas musicians, including Lovett, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
"His generosity," Edmonson says, "has been absolutely endless ... I love working with him in any capacity and I've learned so much from him along the way, just [seeing] how professional and buttoned up his whole outfit is. Everything's really thoroughly handled.
"I've been able to hang out on the perimeter of a lot of scenes and watch how different people run their careers and go about things, and one person's bus looks a lot different than somebody else's bus," she says. "I've just never witnessed anything so well-mannered and well put-together. And I think that's just the nature of how he likes things to be. He likes to take care of people and make sure that everybody's treated properly."
Spending time with Lovett taught her something else, too.
"It made me affirm the importance of maintaining one's integrity," Edmonson says. "That’s what I think about when I think about Lyle — his integrity and how sophisticated he is. You could make compromises every day, as an artist, in furthering your career. And after doing that so many times, you can come out looking like something that you never anticipated. … He just doesn't seem to sacrifice his integrity. And equal to it is taking the time to acknowledge other people. And there is time, even if it feels like there isn'’t. If you place your values there, it just comes full circle."
You Were Always There
That’s another thing about Lovett: despite his sly, dry wit and devilish sense of humor (he has a particular adoration for double entendres), one gets the impression he is quite serious when it comes to making music — even if the music itself isn’t always serious. Though he enjoys hanging out on the bus with his band (his fondness for such camaraderie is, he suspects, a result of his only-child status), he’s not a partier, and in order to balance the various elements of his life, from his horse-breeding business to the Large Band outfit (35 people, three buses and two gear-filled semis), he’s got to run a tight ship. Raised in Klein, Texas, a once-rural town founded by his great-great grandfather outside of Houston, Lovett has a strong work ethic. He also isn’t a corner-cutter, and can be incredibly meticulous and exacting. (One only need listen to his complex, spot-on song arrangements to understand why.)
Tamara Saviano, who coproduced This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, reveals that in the studio, Lovett heard sounds no one else could, including an apparently irritating guitar-string ring under the mix from co-producer Shawn Camp’s acoustic.
"The engineer muted everything else and sure enough, Shawn's guitar string was ringing," she says. Those in the room were amazed — and blown away by the quality of his work on the track, "Anyhow I Love You," a gorgeously nuanced duet with Patty Griffin. ("Lyle Lovett's cover of this song is about as perfect as it gets," raved NPR critic Meredith Ochs.)
"When you record, you just pay attention to everything. You have to," is his explanation. "That's all part of what I learned working with [producer] Billy Williams over the years. The point is to be able to hear everything you're recording. Every instrument has its place in the range of frequencies. There's no point in having something on a record if you can't hear it. You only have the things that you need on a recording; you only have the instruments you need onstage. That's just listening, analyzing, and that, for me, is a great deal of the fun of recording, 'cause you have a chance to shape all that. And the fun of playing live is not having he obligation to pay attention to everything. It's more about the energy of the moment, rather than the precision of it. But recording has to be about both, because a recording, you have the ability to play over and over."
So, one wonders, given his intellectual attraction to sweating the details, that wouldn’t make him a stubborn person … would it?
"Heck yeah," says fellow songwriter Eric Taylor. "Very stubborn!"
Taylor has known Lovett since the latter’s A&M days. They met when Lovett, then a young campus newspaper reporter, came over to interview Taylor and wound up staying for hours. “Lyle can get in your face if he wants to,” Taylor admits. “But he’s also very loyal to you.”
And that is most likely why his determination hasn’t damaged his relationships. Throughout his career, Lovett has worked with the same musicians, engineers and producers. Billy Williams has produced or co-produced his albums since Lovett recorded his first demos in Phoenix (they wound up on his maiden release, 1986’s Lyle Lovett). The only reason Nathaniel Kunkel produced Release Me is because Williams, in his 70s, is slowing down, Lovett says. Kunkel, son of drummer Russ, has worked in the studio with Lovett since 1991. “Nathaniel turned 21 as we were recording Joshua Judges Ruth,” Lovett recalls. “He was George Massenburg’s assistant. And I thought so much of Nathaniel’s work that when it came time to do our next album, which was I Love Everybody, I asked him if he could just engineer it himself. And it was the first recording he did where he was the main engineer. … This is the first time he’s been credited as a producer, but he’s engineered everything that I’ve done since Joshua Judges Ruth.”
He admits not having his longtime teacher Williams in the studio left a void. “We called him a lot while we were recording,” Lovett says, a little forlornly. “We just missed him. It felt strange to record without Billy being there in the control room.
"I can't think of a single musical choice that I've made just for the sake of change," he adds. "It's always been because of some circumstance. … I've never thought, ‘Well, I've done this Billy Williams-produced thing, I'm gonna go for something completely different. Because for me, it just doesn't seem natural. I have no judgment about people who decide to throw in with a totally different group of people to produce something different. That's a valid approach, too. But it's not what naturally occurs to me. What naturally occurs to me is developing a relationship with someone and being able to enjoy the deeper relationship that you have because of the longevity, because of that relationship developing. You have the opportunity to know someone more fully, more completely, and when all of those things match up, the personal aspects and the professional aspects of the relationship, there's just nothing better than that. It's really gratifying.
"When I stand onstage with the guys that I'm playing with this week, for example [Acoustic Group mates Russ Kunkel, Keith Sewell, Viktor Krauss, Keith Bulla and John Hagen], it always takes me back to playing basketball at the Lutheran school," Lovett continues. "Our coach would say 'You all have to know what you're thinking. And you have to be able to pass to somebody without looking at 'em, and they have to know that the pass is coming.' That's the way it feels, you know? It's this incredibly supportive team environment. And that's a great feeling. Whether it's onstage or in the studio, or whether it's the people that you’re in business with, you're in a function with, what you have to trust is that every one of you is trying his best to support the other one, to make the other one look good. That's something that really appeals to me. I think the better you know somebody and the longer you work with 'em, the more solid that feeling is."
Even Michael Wilson, the photographer who captures the sometimes impressionistic, melancholy-tinged black-and-white images that grace Lovett’s albums, has been doing so since 1996’s The Road to Ensenada. And front-of-house sound engineer John Richards, Lovett reports, has mixed every live show he’s done since March 1988. Lovett also is loyal to one guitar brand: Collings. He’s been a fan of Bill Collings’ instruments — and Collings, himself — since they met at Collings’ Houston apartment/workshop in 1978, when Lovett followed up on a recommendation for someone to refret his Martin D-35. (“I got to his place about 2 in the afternoon and left about 9 o’clock at night,” Lovett remembers.) When he bonds with someone, there’s a good chance it’s going to stick.
"Very few have come and gone," says Taylor of Lovett’s inner circle.
Clearly, Lovett appreciates consistency. He still lives on the family homestead, in a house built by his grandparents. It’s right next to the one he grew up in, now inhabited by his mother. Lovett bought back some of the original family property, including his grandparents’ home, after it had been sold. He had to cut the house in half to move it to its current spot, but he was determined to save it, says Taylor.
No Big Deal
Yet Lovett knows evolution occurs, too, and he’s about to undergo a sea change in his career. For the first time since he started releasing albums, Lovett will soon be without a label. His 25-year relationship with MCA/Curb/Lost Highway ends following the Feb. 28 debut of Release Me.
And yes, the title is absolutely intentional. “Curb is so famous for keeping people in their record deals for years and years and years; Hank Williams Jr. did something like 72 records for Curb. And with all this stuff that was goin’ on with Tim McGraw [Curb sued for breach of contract; McGraw countersued and won], and this was supposed to be my last album, I just couldn’t resist the joke,” he confesses. “That’s why I picked the song.”
But he wants to make it clear the break is not acrimonious — or even a conscious choice on his part.
"It's not that I'm leaving. That's not an accurate way to look at it. It's that my deal is over," he says, stammering a bit. "They haven't asked me to stay, either. It's not that I wouldn't. I mean, these folks have been great to me. I don't know, actually, what
I’m gonna do next or what’s gonna happen next. But I’m awfully proud of having been on their labels for all these years. It’s unusual to stay in one business deal for that long.”
One possibility is that he’ll finally be able to release an album he did four years ago with Hiatt, Clark and Ely. They recorded three nights at the Fox Theater in Redwood City, Calif., and Lovett, who funded it, wanted to release all three shows, but Lost Highway, MCA’s Americana imprint, declined. Though he owns the recordings, the label owns the release rights because they were done during the span of his contract.
"I definitely think it's something that the public that supports me would be interested in, but the record company didn't see any value in it," he says. "That’s the sort of thing that you have to deal with that you think, Oh, that's too bad. That's just too bad.’”
The label could grant him permission to release it independently. Failing that, he says, “When my deal’s over, we can record more shows. … Any excuse to get together with those guys is something I’d be glad to do.”
Their unrehearsed onstage repartee and band-bus chats are an endless source of pleasure, he says, adding, “Every time I get to go out with John and Joe and Guy, just to be around those guys, I feel like it just takes me back to when I wrote for the Battalion at Texas A&M. I get to interview my heroes.”
You Can’t Resist It
Lovett and Hiatt enjoy the hang so much, they also go out together as a duo, without Clark and Ely. This year, they’re the top-billed act on the fifth annual Cayamo singer-songwriter cruise Feb. 5-12, which Lovett calls “a folk festival on a boat.” (Though Lovett doesn’t remember becoming aware of Edmonson’s music till Kimble turned him on to it, Edmonson says she first met him on a Cayamo cruise when she accompanied her boyfriend, who was performing. Lovett heard them tell someone they were from Houston and struck up a conversation.)
Lovett likes to pair up, apparently. In fact, Release Me could almost be considered his Duets album. In addition to his track with Edmonson, he teams with old pal k.d. lang on the title tune. Longtime backup singer Arnold McCuller shares “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” a Michael Franks composition popularized by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. (“It’s such a great song because of all the white guys that would rather not be. They wanna be cooler than we are,” Lovett jokes.) Sara Watkins joins him on the song, “Dress of Laces,” and Watkins and her brother Sean share “Night’s Lullaby,” a song Lovett composed for the Shakespeare Center’s Much Ado About Nothing production, which also featured the Watkins siblings.
"The idea for the album was to record songs that I've played live throughout my career, since 1976, that I hadn't recorded yet, but songs that I love," he explains. In some ways, it's a continuation of Step Inside This House, though without the focus on songs by fellow Texans. Counting 2009's Natural Forces and the 2003 compilation Smile: Songs from the Movies (which includes his duets with Randy Newman on "You've Got A Friend in Me" and Keb' Mo' on "Till It Shines,") it's his fourth album dominated by cover tunes. And like most of his work, it doesn't fit the confines of "country"
"I never thought he was country at all," says Ferguson. Lovett agrees.
"To me, country artists weren't the guys who played the acoustic singer-songwriter places like [former venue] Emmajoe's or the Cactus Cafe in Austin, or [Houston’s] Anderson Fair," he says. "They played the dancehall. That’s the way most country artists came up in those days."
Lovett, in fact — along with lang, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam, all of whom released their debuts about the same time — wound up defying preconceived country music notions and broadening the spectrum altogether. They earned enough radio airplay, attention and eventually, sales, to bust the myth that if you were a little bit country, you couldn’t also be a little bit rock ’n’ roll (or blues, jazz, gospel, folk, etc.). Today, all five are best described as Americana artists — the very type of artist who might have started out on Curb and migrated to MCA’s rootsier Lost Highway label when it formed in 2000.
Stand By Your Man
While cynics might say Lovett has been cranking out contractual-obligation records, the truth is, he’s always been fond of honoring his musical heritage and exposing others to artists he respects. Which is why he’s recorded so much music by the Texas songwriters he loves: Taylor, Clark, Van Zandt, Tommy Elskes, Don Sanders, Vince Bell, Steven Fromholz, Walter Hyatt, Willis Alan Ramsey, college pal (and sometime co-writer) Robert Earl Keen … the list goes on.
"He's very loyal to those people who influenced him growing up," says Taylor. Lovett has recorded several of Taylor's songs, including "Whooping Crane" on Natural Forces and "Understand Me" on Release Me; he also accompanies Taylor on the latter’s just-released disc, Eric Taylor And Friends, Live At The Red Shack.
"He was smart enough to be able to take things from all those different people, like me and Guy Charles Clark and Willis Ramsey, and then develop his own style. When Lyle hit was when Lyle didn't sound like anybody else anymore," Taylor adds. "He was smart enough to know that was what he was going to have to do — develop something that was not only him, but something that was unique.”
The 6-foot-tall gent with Brillo hair and that halfway grin has also become a symbol of sorts for Texas itself; he’s even appeared in tourism ads. That was bound to happen when he came up with songs like “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” and its cleverly endearing punchline, “But Texas wants you anyway.”
He’s never felt in danger of being stereotyped as Texas-centric, however.
"I really just try to be true to my own sensibilities. I try to write and sing about what I know about, because that's what I feel like I have to offer. I mean, you have to figure out where you fit, why people would be interested in you in the first place," Lovett says, echoing Taylor. "You have to offer something individual, in some way that is unique to you. I think the most individual thing that I have to offer is my point of view, so I just try to be true to that. And I don't really intend for everything to be a promo for the state of Texas, although if people take it that way, I'm happy."
Both Taylor and Ferguson say they knew early on that Lovett was going to be a star.
"He would do almost anything to get heard," Taylor says. "I remember giving him rides over to Mr. Gatti’' to play for a bunch of people who were eatin’'pizza. That’s what you do. He opened for me quite a bit at places like Anderson Fair."
Taylor also recalls having to reassure Lovett’s father that his son was on the right track. When Bill Lovett called to ask whether Taylor thought Lyle had a chance of succeeding in the music business, Taylor reflects, “I distinctly remember saying, ‘If anybody around here is gonna make it, it’s gonna be him.’”
Adds Ferguson, “He was conscious that he was different-looking, but he was OK with himself. He had this overwhelming confidence. It was just intriguing. And he had these great songs. … At the same time, he could be very shy, and he was always, always humble. You could compliment him all day and you’d never see any cockiness there, whatsoever.”
She did spot something else, however.
"He had such a gleam in his eye," she says. "Now I know it when I see it. Robert Earl had it, too. It means there's a good chance that person is going to do what they want to accomplish. There's a determination. A confidence combined with intelligence. They know what their path is and they’re gonna get it."
When Lovett hears her assessment, he exclaims, “Goodness gracious. What a nice thing to say!”
But he begs to differ.
"Oh, gosh. I don't think you ever know where you're headed," he maintains. "I mean, you hope. You know that you like doing what you're gettin' to do. You know that. And there’s nothin' more important than what you're doing right now."
But he admits that when he started to play more important gigs, such as the coveted Sunday afternoon folk slot at Gruene Hall or Rockefeller’s in Houston, where he opened for Randy Newman, “I’d think to myself, ‘Well, I may never get to see Randy Newman again, or I may never get booked to play Rockefeller’s ever again if they don’t like me, but at least I got to do it this once.’ And that way, that show is the most important show that I would ever do. Whatever show you’re doing, right now, today, is the most important show you’ll ever do.”
Which could be one reason you won’t run across bad reviews of his shows.
Whether he’s pouring ache into a gorgeous ballad like “Whooping Crane,” raising the roof with the gospel of “Church,” giving a Bo Diddley bop and a sly wink to the lascivious “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” or jazzing it up with the hilarious, simile-filled leer of “Here I Am,” Lovett musically shape-shifts as swiftly, and as often, as Clark Kent spins into Superman. And no matter which band incarnation he’s fronting, everybody knows exactly what to play, whether by instinct or direction.
"I think the first time I heard the Large Band, that surprised me, because it’s just surprising in itself," says Taylor. "There's not that many songwriters who could put together a combination soul/Texas swing band. And it was so unique and worked so well with the new type of music that he was writing. With the Large Band stuff, his music changed as well. His lyrics changed, his delivery changed. His invitation to comedy changed. I thought it was a brilliant move. And he had the money to do it.”
Well, in the summertime, anyway. Lovett says one reason he began doing different types of tours is that the Large Band is such an expensive proposition, they have to be able to play some the bigger outdoor venues, like Denver’s Red Rocks or Vienna, Va.’s Wolf Trap, to make it work. It doesn’t hurt that both are stunning places, and help maintain fan interest so he can go back and play more intimate rooms like Alexandria, Va.’s historic Birchmere, another spot he credits with helping to launch his career. Lovett opened there for Clark, at Clark’s invitation, before he’d even released his first record.
I Know You Know
Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that Lovett has rather amazing powers of recall. He mentions people constantly, but he’s not a name-dropper at all.
“Anybody that had anything to do with him in the early days, he remembers,” Ferguson says. “He’s totally gracious about it all. And he’s even rekindled some of those relationships, which is really neat to see.”
He can recollect specific events from every part of his career — and not just obviously unforgettable moments like recording the Al Green duet with Billy Preston or meeting Ringo Starr, who approached Lovett in a restaurant to say hello just like any other fan might. That ability is even more amazing when one considers how much he travels and how many people he meets. In the rare case when his memory fails him, he might groan in frustration — then manage pull out the elusive factoid.
Unfortunately, that won’t help him solve a riddle surrounding the acoustic version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” he does on Release Me. It’s developed from one he heard in 1976 on a demo tape submitted by someone who wanted to perform at Texas A&M. (As a student, Lovett booked coffeehouse shows.) The leisurely take contained the line, “He was a brown-eyed handsome man like Henry Aaron.” Lovett borrows the ad-lib, and would love to credit the person, but has no idea who it was or what happened to the tape.
"I just wish I could find it. I wish I could give him proper credit," Lovett says. The artist was never booked, but Lovett tried to listen to every tape he received — another impressive feat.
Clearly, he knows the value of such credit — or even giving a nice compliment.
Longtime Austin City Limits cameraman Doug Robb got his secondhand, which was actually even better. The occasion was Lovett’s Nov. 8, 2010 ACL taping, the last in Studio 6A before the show moved to its new home at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin. Lovett invited the entire staff and crew onstage to sing on the final song, the appropriately chosen “Closing Time.” They crowded around him, simultaneously smiling and teary-eyed.
“I stood behind Lyle up front and sang a harmony on the chorus,” recalls Robb, who has some history as a “semi-professional” musician. Afterward, show host and producer Terry Lickona went backstage to do the interview that runs during the closing credits. “Terry told me, ‘Lyle said to me, ‘You know that big camera guy, Doug?’ And Terry said, ‘Yeah.’ And Lyle said, ‘He’s got a really great voice!’ Made my millennium!”
I Love Everybody
As for what gives Lovett a thrill, he’s got a long list.
"When somebody else wants to play one of your songs, that really is the nicest compliment," he says. “Man, I always enjoy hearing someone else’s personality though my words and melody. That’s great fun. You know somebody really likes the song if they’re doin’ it.”
Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman, Patty Loveless, Holly Cole, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lou Rawls, Bernadette Peters, the Holmes Brothers, Nanci Griffith, Tammy Wynette, Jim Lauderdale, Michael Feinstein, and most recently, Pat Green and Cory Morrow, are among those who have.
He’s also flattered when he’s asked to make special appearances, from doing that last ACL taping to presenting his friend Ray Benson's Texas Medal of Arts award, which he did last March (Billy Gibbons, Lovett’s Texas State Musician successor, also won an award that night. Ironically, it was the first time the pair, two of Texas’ most renowned musicians, got a chance to chat). And if Lovett can help raise funds or bolster morale after a tragedy like 1999's A&M bonfire collapse or the Bastrop wildfires, the only reason he’d say no is if he absolutely can't make it.
"It always amazes me at the extraordinary opportunities that come up simply because I'm already doing something I love to do," Lovett says. "Like getting to play at the White House. I never lose sight of how rare an opportunity something like that is. To meet someone like Jonah Lehrer or to sit next to Billy Gibbons at dinner and listen to him tell stories about his music — I mean, that’s extraordinary. Craving that kind of experience was why I took journalism in school, because I enjoy talking to people. I enjoy finding out about them.
"I really enjoy the opportunity for serendipity," he continues. "To be around people who are gifted and talented and smart is always inspiring. I get a real thrill from it."
Of course, he then throws in this little aside: “Every time somethin’ like that happens, or every time I’ve gotten to do something like that, there’s a little piece in the back of my mind that says, ‘Well, If this goes terribly wrong, at least I got to do it.’ It’s the same thing that I used to think when I played Gruene Hall or Anderson Fair for the first time. At least I got to do that this once. I’m always aware of just what an extraordinary opportunity it is, and I always appreciate being able to do it.”
In case you weren’t counting, that’s three uses of “extraordinary” and four of “opportunity” in this section alone.
But then it gets better. Because it all comes back around to the fans. “I tell ya, my very favorite thing that happens,” Lovett says, “is when people will tell me where they were when they first heard one of my songs, because it makes me realize that my song is a part of this person’s life. Because they’re not telling me about my song. They’re tellin’ me about what they were doing — they’re telling me my song reminds them of an experience that they had that was important to them in their life.
"That’s when, for me, it feels like it's working. That's when it feels like this really is something. If my song reminds this person of himself, then that's the most you can ask for."