On a Friday afternoon in August, Lyle Lovett was at home outside Houston making last-minute decisions about his new album. He then caught a plane to New York for a private after-hours tour of the Guggenheim museum’s motorcycle exhibit. At midnight he had dinner with friends in SoHo; then, early on Saturday morning, he climbed on his tour bus and traveled to Rhode Island, where he headlined the Newport Folk Festival that evening.
There he joined Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rodney Crowell, Eric Taylor and others for what amounted to a reunion of old friends from the Austin/Houston club circuit. Lovett’s new album, Step Inside This House, is also a look back at his Lone Star roots. It’s an album of covers and songs by Texas singer-songwriters, from heroes like Townes Van Zandt to contemporaries like the late Walter Hyatt. Fresh off a Grammy for 1996’s The Road to Ensenada and acclaim for his performance in The Opposite of Sex, Lovett has taken a break from his own songs to give his audience a peek into where he comes from.
You’re a motorcycle enthusiast?
Yeah. In high school I worked in a Houston dirt-bike shop called Cycle Shack. I really wanted to be a racer, but I was not as fast as the really fast guys. I don’t race anymore, but I get to meet the motocross racers whose pictures I had on my wall. Last January, I rode with Malcolm Smith [a featured rider in On Any Sunday] in Chile for eight days. It gives me the same feeling as getting to meet Guy Clark.
Lucinda Williams said that the Newport Folk Festival lineup was a reunion of Texas club musicians.
The pecking order at Houston’s Anderson Fair was, Eric Taylor and Nanci Griffith could headline weekends; Lucinda would headline Thursdays. When I started playing there, I’d open for Lucinda. She was very cool back then. Lucinda’s always been herself – very strong, a fully formed identity even then. Not searching.
Your songwriting peaked on The Road to Ensenada. Why an album of covers?
These songs have been a part of my life. I played some of them in the first set I ever performed, when I was eighteen. I wanted to stop with my own songs, take stock and go back to the beginning. The Road to Ensenada was viewed as a really personal album; I just didn’t want to deal with any of that.
Does knowing that people scrutinize your lyrics for inside dope on your marriage to Julia Roberts make you reluctant to do personal songs?
You react to everything that happens. All of that has made me sort of want to speak up a little less, but ultimately I think it will work itself out. You can’t rush it. I just want to write more before I make a record. If you don’t really have a good record to make, it’s much better not to make one.
The more personal your songs get, the more holes you leave for the listener. Do you pull back when a song gets personal?
Maybe so, maybe so. Maybe if I filled in all the details, it would not be as easy for someone to identify with the song. But in another way, it might just have the quality of telling people more than they want to know.
What will the single be?
I think Walter Hyatt’s “Teach Me About Love.” That would be a great thing for Walter’s family. That would be cool. This was not a philanthropic endeavor in any way, but now that it’s done, just thinking that somebody might learn about Walter who didn’t know about him is very exciting. But I don’t pretend that that was my motivation.
It’s not your Concert for Bangladesh.
Exactly – I just love these songs. It’s selfish. These are songs I play around the house. If I’m at a party and a guitar ends up in my lap, I don’t play one of my songs. I’ll say, “Hey, check this out. It’s a great song.” You don’t think that about your own stuff. I have such confidence in these songs. People who don’t like the songs, I’m not gonna like them!