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Lovett at First Sight

From Pontiacs to cowboy hats

Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett,,June 30th,1988

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

It’s 4:45 in the morning at the highway truck stop that is serving as a refueling station for Lyle Lovett and His Large Band on the ten-hour bus trip from Chicago to Minneapolis. Lovett sidles up to the diner counter and orders a grilled-cheese sandwich and coffee for breakfast. And though Lovett – complete with his Eraserhead coif, elegant pin-stripe suit and black cowboy boots – certainly stands out from the rest of the crowd sitting at the counter, most of the truck drivers dotting the room seem far too weary to pay any attention to the lanky fellow with the funny sense of fashion.

But when Lovett finishes his meal and goes to pay his check, the middle-aged, bouffanted cashier (whose name tag reads, JANETTE) eyes him suspiciously. “Hey, mister, you look famous,” she says. “You a country singer or something?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lovett says with a twang. “I am a country singer or something.” That’s as good a description as any for Lovett, who has been classified as country but whose songs -mostly ironic parables of good love gone bad and bad love gone worse – are a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll and a little bit everything else.

“Can I sing you a song mat I wrote?” Janette asks. “Sure you can,” Lovett says with a smile. Janette stands up straight and begins to sing her song, which equates love with flowers.

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Lovett listens politely and warmly tells Janette what a nice song she’s written. Then, at her request, he autographs the bill. Janette looks at the signature and tries to decipher the name of the man she’s sung for. As Lovett climbs back on the bus for the long ride, the sun beginning to rise behind him, he pauses. “Lucky thing she never heard of me,” he says. “Otherwise, she might have sung two songs.”

If Janette doesn’t know who Lyle Lovett is by now, chances are she will soon. Though the thirty-year-old Texan has cut only two albums – 1986’s Lyle Lovett and the current Pontiac – he has already established himself as perhaps the most important singer-songwriter to come out of the country-music scene in the past decade. Lovett’s songs are powerful reminders that even cowboys get the blues (and that some cowboys can play the blues). And in His Large Band, which includes such un-country touches as a cellist, a soulful horn section and a brilliant R&B female vocalist, he’s found a sympathetic backing unit capable of bringing those songs to life. So far Lovett has done well on the country charts – even inching his way onto the pop charts – and has won raves not only from the press but also from folks like Steve Winwood, Huey Lewis, Rosanne Cash and Leo Kottke, whose assessment of Lovett is “great music, great hair.”

But Lyle Lovett is a bit concerned that he may become infamous before he becomes famous. Recently, Lovett has been stung by critics’ charges that he is a misogynist – or, as he has come to call it, “the M word.”

In truth, his songs do contain an unusually high body count of casualties in the war between the sexes. For example, there’s the less-than-blissful view of marriage presented in “She’s No Lady” (“The preacher asked her/And she said I do/The preacher asked me/And she said yes he does too/And the preacher said/I pronounce you 99 to life/Son, she’s no lady, she’s your wife”), and there’s the narrator of the deceptively chipper-sounding “L.A. County,” who makes a special trip to attend the wedding of an old girlfriend in order to blow away the new bride and groom with his .45.

It’s no wonder that Lyle Lovett seems to be on the verge of becoming to the fairer sex what Randy Newman (who was an early influence) became to short people in the Seventies.

“Yeah,” Lovett says a bit glumly. “Lately I’ve been thinking about taking some time off from the music thing and opening up a chain of misogyny parlors.” Some five hours after finishing an extraordinary show in Chicago, Lovett is sitting on the bed in his relatively luxurious room at the back of the bus while the other members of His Large Band sleep in their bunks. He is talking in his characteristically understated, earnest way about women, his music and the intersection of the two. He is trying to explain delicately that he actually loves women – though he doesn’t want to reveal any specifics about his private life, which he prefers remain very much private.

“I’d like to think I’m not screwed up about women,” he says. “Relationships just seem to be things that start out great, then fall apart after two or three years. But I didn’t make them that way. I’m attracted to the mythology of the loner, but in practical terms I don’t want to be a lonely guy.” He stops and looks out at the highway. “See, it’s not that I hate women. I just hate it when they let me down.”

“This is the only song I ever wrote about true love,” Lyle Lovett tells the crowd at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis while introducing “God Will,” the existential country-kiss-off number from his debut album. “I know that it’s about true love, because it’s the shortest song I ever wrote.”

The spotlight strikes the face of the formally dressed Lovett – who offstage can seem quite handsome in an unconventional way – in such a manner drat it makes him look like Spuds Mac-Kenzie. “It’s actually easier than you’d think to be a weirdo in the country-music world,” Lovett says of his appearance. “Most people have a sense of humor. I remember at the Country Music Awards, K.D. Lang asked me if I got into Eraserhead free. But my look is intentional, I suppose. It wasn’t at first, but then people started noticing it, so I decided to push it to see what they’d say. It’s hard to get a cowboy hat over my hair, and I just don’t look as good in jeans as Dwight Yoakam does.”

What is infinitely more interesting than Lovett’s look, though, is his show. Most nights, his band opens the concerts with a classic bit of Ellingtonian jazz. From there Lovett and company touch on all sorts of musical genres, from the relatively straightforward country balladry of “If I Were the Man That You Wanted” and “I Loved You Yesterday” to the soulful, jazzy, uptempo numbers like “M-o-n-e-y” and “An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy (The Wedding Song)” to the lyrical folkiness of the ultimate loner’s anthem “If I Had a Boat” (in which a wizened Tonto tells the Lone Ranger, “Kemo sabe, kiss my ass”). And late in the show, Lovett turns the stage over for a song to Francine Reed, a fiery veteran R&B singer from Chicago by way of Phoenix.

Lovett is justifiably proud of his band – Reed, cellist John Hagen, pianist Matt Rollings, guitarist Ray Herndon, drummer Dan Thomlison, bassist Matt McKenzie, saxophonists Steve Marsh, Harvey Thompson and Ronnie Leeds. “We can do anything I write,” Lovett says. “We can do a number with the whole schmear or just with John, whatever fits the song.”

Even when the music stops, the show does not. While the onstage patter of most performers rarely gets more ironic than “It’s great to be here in Buffalo,” Lovett is unafraid to challenge his audience not only with his subtle blend of country, jazz, rock and R&B but also with a little down-home verbal dadaism. This is, after all, a man whose first words to the audience each night are “Hello. I’m the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder. Wait. Don’t turn the page. I’m not finished. . . . Life is so uncertain.” The kind of fellow who, in the non-gender-bending world of country music, chooses to encore with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.”

When Lovett appeared on ‘Hee Haw’ a few years back and saluted his home town, Klein, Texas, the show called the post office to find out its current population. (It was 41,000 then.) Lovett still lives in the small farming community just outside of Houston, in his grandparents’ old house, 150 yards away from his parents.

Asked how his high-school classmates might remember him, Lovett grimaces. “I think they’d use a lot of interrogative pronouns, like ‘Who?’ I was pretty forgettable – which in retrospect is most likely a blessing.” Lovett, a shy, middle-class kid, developed his interest in music gradually. He grew up listening to both country and rock; Hank Williams and the Eagles were favorites, as were Texas singers like Willie Nelson, Michael Murphey, Guy Clark, B.W. Stevenson and Townes Van Zandt. In ninth grade, by virtue of the fact that he owned a guitar, Lovett was recruited by a few other teenagers in the local chapter of the Future Farmers of America to play in a country band. “I played with the amp turned down real low,” he says of the experience.

It was while studying at Texas A&M that he started playing coffeehouses and writing songs. Lovett describes his act as “an insensitive-singer-songwriter thing.” In 1980 he finally graduated with a journalism degree and then briefly moved back home to Klein to concentrate on his songwriting and playing. He went back to Texas A&M for a graduate degree in German and even studied in Germany. In 1983, Lovett was invited to play a four-week-long country-music festival in Luxembourg. “I was playing solo,” Lovett says. “Sort of a between-acts deal, and the crowd was not interested.” Fortunately, J. David Sloan and the Rogues, from Phoenix, Arizona, were also on the bill, and they took a liking to Lovett and started accompanying him onstage. A few years later, when he was signed to MCA, he decided to ask his Phoenix friends to record with him. The same players continue to form the core of his band today. “They were just incredible musicians,” he says fondly. “And more importantly, they had a fine-tuned sense of pity.”

A day before the minneapolis show, Lovett is spending the cold, sunny morning pressing the flesh with some Chicago radio folk. At US99, the local country station, DJ Nancy Turner plugs Lovett’s sold-out show at the Park West Theater that night but then explains to the singer that “She’s No Lady” caused such a commotion among US99’s female listeners that she decided to hold a contest She has challenged the ladies of the listening audience to come up with their own song in response to Lovett’s. Lovett, seeming game, encourages Turner to play him the contest’s winning entry. Within seconds Turner has cued up Kelly Kessler and Jean Sherbourne’s “He’s No Cowboy, He’s My Spouse,” which begins, “He hates my cooking, he hates my apple pie/He loves to tell me/He hates my thunder thighs/He loves to ride herd on me to keep up the house/Son, he’s no cowboy, he’s my spouse.”

As the interview draws to a close, Turner asks Lovett what he thinks about cowboys. During his concerts, Lovett often says, “I would have loved to have been a cowboy, but I was afraid of cows.” But he seems to want to answer the question seriously now. He pauses dramatically and tells her, “I think a lot about cowboys.”

During the car ride back to the hotel, Lovett seems amused by his first brush with parody. Asked if he worries a great deal about offending people, about being misunderstood and misinterpreted, he answers, “In some cases, I drink people get the joke, but they just don’t like the joke. I realize my sense of humor is tacky sometimes, but I hope it comes across in the shows that it’s not malicious. Sure, I have psychopathic thoughts, but real psychopaths have nothing but those droughts. And as far as offending people, I’ve occasionally worried about hurting the feelings of the people I know that I write about But it really hasn’t been much of a problem. Believe it or not, me girl I wrote ‘L.A. County’ for likes the song.I recently signed an album for her husband – ‘To Dave, Just Kidding.’ ” He is asked one more time what he really drinks of cowboys. “Well, I actually was a little afraid of cows growing up,” he says. “My uncle had a dairy farm. I used to help milk them and stuff. But you get kicked a couple times and it sort of makes you get gun-shy.”

Sort of like with women?

“Ooh, this is very dangerous territory,” Lovett says with a laugh, “talking about cows and women in the same sentence.” He pauses and gradually warms to the idea. “No, that’s it, Cows and Women: The Lyle Lovett Story!” 

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