If the term “Americana” had not been coined, radio programmers, journalists and anyone else charged with sticking labels on music would still be pondering how to define Lyle Lovett’s singular style. Blithely genre-jumping from traditional country to gospel, jazz, blues, folk, western swing and even soul, he’s one of those artists, like Béla Fleck and Elvis Costello, who simply cannot be corralled. Exhibit A would be his four Grammys, which include Best Country Album for The Road to Ensenada and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (for “Funny How Time Slips Away,” his duet with Al Green).
Well, there is one label he wears as easily as his lopsided grin: Texan. When he’s not on the road with his Large Band, his pals Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Guy Clark, or in some other musical configuration, chances are he’s in Klein, Texas, a German-Lutheran settlement north of Houston named after it founder, his great-great grandfather. Lovett lives with his fiancée, April Kimble, in his grandfather’s house on the original family farm (which he eventually bought back after parts were sold). His mom lives next door, in the house he grew up in. The land still produces hay, and his uncle keeps some cows. A few years ago, Lovett, an avid horseman, started breeding quarter horses. (The bottle-raised orphan bull that mangled his leg in 2002 also resides there.) It’s not far from Texas A&M, where Lovett graduated with degrees in German and journalism, hung out with Butch Hancock and Robert Earl Keen, and honed his songwriting skills.
Showing a classically Texan independent streak, Lovett wanted to set up our interview himself; it was easier than going through his publicist, especially because I was traveling from Austin and would need directions. But when Lovett suggested a rendezvous in Tioga, it led to the following exchange:
How far is that from Austin?
It’s north of Dallas. Probably a few hours. … You’re not from Texas?
That’s right. I’m not from Texas!
What else could I say? He didn’t laugh; just politely asked where I was from. I answered, “Pennsylvania.” Fearing my Yankee origins would scotch the interview—which would focus on Natural Forces, his second album featuring songs by his favorite Texas songwriters—I quickly added I’ve lived here almost six years. (Later, I kicked myself for not paraphrasing the song’s next line, “Texas wants you anyway,” or remembering the quip natives love to hear: “I got here as soon as I could!”)
Over a two-and-a-half hour lunch at one of his regular haunts (he ordered a cheeseburger), we discussed animals, journalism, his acting career, HBO’s True Blood (he was surprised and tickled to hear his own “I Will Rise Up” over the credits of a recent episode) and of course, Texas. He told me I fit right in.
You’ve always had a sly streak, and this album is loaded with “Dr. Demento”-worthy double entendres …
Do you do those just for fun, or do you have an additional purpose–like seeing if you can get them on the radio?
Writin’ songs is like a mystery. The most difficult thing to do is have a good idea. If you have a decent idea, the songs are the easy part. Actually having something to say is the hard part. If you get an idea for a song, then it pulls you along. There are just some ideas that you get that are really hard to edit out; it’s hard to stop thinking about some bad ideas. So you just finish it and you end up putting it on a record. [Laughter]
So when you do a song like “Choke My Chicken” and “Farmer Brown” (“Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel”) …
“Farmer Brown.” I would never title a song what you just said. How rude. How crude. [Grins]
But you’ll sing about it.
Oh sure, I’ll sing it. [Laughs]
Bob Schneider says he prefers for people to connect the dots and form their own relationships with his songs. He uses a writing game; somebody will suggest a word or phrase and he’ll write songs. Do you want people to build their own relationships with your songs, instead of trying to interpret them literally?
Beyond hoping that someone will like one of my songs, I don’t think about how a song will be received. I just hope that, when somebody hears one of my songs, they’ll want to hear it again. I don’t have an impact or an effect in mind. I really just try to write something that makes sense for me, that seems true. For me, songs are sort of sacred ground, because it’s a place where you can actually tell the truth. You don’t have to be diplomatic. I think the point of a song is to just say something that’s true, or that expresses an idea that reflects something that’s true, whether it’s a truth about human nature or about the way people bullshit one another. A song doesn’t have to be serious to be true… but to me, that’s what a song is. And if I can get that right for me, then it’s worth writing. …You’re asking people for their time and attention, and it’s a chance to tell somebody what you think, or to share a joke. I just always hope that whatever’s in the song is worth demanding somebody’s time [for].
You have such an eclectic musical sense, but it’s not clear where you got it. You started playing in second grade, but you said you weren’t an ambitious music student, so how did it evolve?
When I was in high school, a couple of buddies of mine played guitar and were interested in learning songs, which is not something that I’d ever really done. I would always practice my guitar and try to play along with records, but I’d never learned a song. So that’s what got me interested. And then one of those guys had his driver’s license, where I didn’t, so we started going into Houston together once a week for a guitar lesson. I had a really great teacher in town. And then we started playing together. We were doing mainly singer/songwriter stuff. A lot of those songs that I recorded on Step Inside This House; Steven Fromholz’s “Bears” and “Texas Trilogy” and [Townes Van Zandt’s] “If I Needed You.” And the blues stuff, the person who showed me that blues could be a part of acoustic and folk music, more than anyone, [was] Willis Alan Ramsey. This guy was so mixed up in the blues, and I found myself really drawn to that. I always loved blues and it naturally became a part of songs that I was writing. And that’s where the jazz stuff comes in. It’s really just blues. What I was trying to do [on Natural Forces] was play songs that have been a part of my musical life. None of these songs were songs that I learned for this record. They were songs that I’ve known for years. The simple fact was, it’s been two years since my last record and I was eager to record “Natural Forces” and “Pantry” and “Farmer Brown,” even. Believe it or not, I was eager to record that. [Laughter] I didn’t have enough other songs that I was happy with that I wanted to put with ‘em. I thought it was a good chance to record some of these songs that weren’t on Step Inside This House. I made that record as long as the record company would let me. That’s the only double-disc I’ve ever done, and I still couldn’t record everything I wanted to do.
Do you think of yourself as a slow songwriter?
No, I don’t worry about it, I don’t think about it, really. I enjoy writing the way I’ve always written, and for the reason I’ve always written when I feel like I’ve got something to write about. Clearly, I’m not trying to write songs for the radio; I’m not trying to write songs in a 9-to-5 kind of way. I try to write songs, or play songs, that reflect my sensibilities about what I appreciate in the world, and in life… I’m always grateful when I’m able to write a song that I like. But I don’t worry if I don’t have something going. The songs that, usually, I’m happiest with are songs that you don’t sit down and write. They’re songs that make you sit down and almost write themselves. Songs that I’ve written in the past that I feel are more crafted, they end up being the songs that I don’t necessarily play. They’re not songs I stay involved with for a long time. There’s nothing wrong with that approach to writing songs. It all depends on how good the song turns out.
You’ve used the same producer for your whole career. How did you two hook up?
Billy Williams was a part of the band that I met in 1983 on that trip to Luxembourg that I took to play just as a single. And I ended up hangin’ out with those guys for a month and they [invited] me to come to Phoenix and record. We did one day in a recording studio together and recorded “Cowboy Man,” “Give Back my Heart,” “If I Were the Man You Wanted” and “Closing Time,” and that became the first demo that I went to Nashville with.
It was a lucky time, because it was a time when Nashville was being open-minded. …I went to Nashville for the first time in June of 1984, and was lucky to get some meetings, and I listened a lot more than I talked. And even just being in the room with people and listening to songwriters and publishers talk, they all seemed to be talking about the same thing, which was, people were having big hits on the radio, but the sales numbers were really down. And they talked about how a No. 1 song on the radio didn’t necessarily equate to sales. It became clear to me that Nashville was looking for a way to even that out, and there were a lot of new people signed in those days. I got a record deal in the summer of ‘85. It seemed like Nashville was looking for what would be next. My record came out in ‘86—the same year that Dwight Yoakam’s first record came out, k.d. lang’s first record came out, Steve Earle’s first record came out, Marty Stuart’s first record came out, Sweethearts of the Rodeo’s first record came out, Randy Travis’ first record was either in ‘85 or early ‘86. Even I had songs on the country charts, which is surprising to me. But what turned out to be the next thing in Nashville were the more traditional-type acts like Randy Travis and Clint Black, and then Garth Brooks. But there was that period of time when there was a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t think of as being a traditional Nashville signing gettin’ signed. You’d see people having a chance to make a record, and that’s a very cool thing. I feel very fortunate, because I always think of myself as the guy, you know, if there are three lines at the airport to get through security, I always pick the one that moves the slowest.
Are there any particular performances that stand out as special memories?
I’ve gotten to work with so many people that I’m a fan of. All the touring I’ve gotten to do with Bonnie Raitt; Butch Hancock; every time I get to work with Ray [Benson] and Asleep at the Wheel; the times I’ve gotten to work with Willie. Willie’s so generous. Every time I get to go out with John [Hiatt] and Joe [Ely] and Guy [Clark], just to be around those guys, it takes me back to when I wrote for the Battalion at Texas A&M. I get to interview my heroes.
It’s such an inspired relationship you guys have onstage. Are you ever gonna record together?
We have recorded. It’s mired in the record deal. We recorded three nights in Redwood City, California, a couple of years ago and it’s all ready to go, if we could get the business end of it [together]. … I’m hopeful that we can eventually put it out.
Anything else you want to mention?
I’m especially proud of the songs by my songwriter friends on this record. Eric Taylor’s song (“Whooping Crane”), and Don Sanders’ (“Bayou Song”). It’s fun to record somebody else’s song, but you always want to do justice to it, and on “Step Inside This House,” which was Guy’s song, I had to ask him if I could do it. He had never recorded that song. The songwriter always has first dibs. Guy was really nice about lettin’ me do it and I called him afterward and I said, “I hope I didn’t mess it up.” And Guy is so cool; he said something that was just a great lesson. You know, if you write something, you should be able to stand behind it. So Guy says to me, “Man, you can’t mess up one of my songs.” And I just thought that’s the kind of confidence—that’s how you’re supposed to feel about your songs. And if you don’t feel that way about one of your songs, then by God, don’t play it.