Lyle Lovett Turns Life to Music
By Rex Rutkoski
Even after all these years, multiple Grammy winner Lyle Lovett does not take it for granted.
To another performer, his latest tour might be viewed as just another one in a long series of tours.
Even a casual conversation with the multi-genre singer-songwriter suggests that is not the case with him.
“I still find it really an exceptional thing to be able to do this,” he says. “I still have the attitude I really can’t believe I really get to do this. I never thought I’d ever get to play music for a living.”
He is not the only beneficiary of the fact that he has been able to carve out a very colorful career. His Hampton Roads fans are about to be reminded of the very colorful gift that is the music of Lyle Lovett as he headlines a concert Aug. 28 at the Ferguson Center, Newport News.
What he gets to do, says Lovett, is think about life and turn it into music. What could be more fun than that, he wonders aloud?
“I’ve been allowed to do that by people. I haven’t had to approach my music so much as a product or have a specific purpose. I really have been given such creative freedom,” he adds.
When he is reminded that kind of freedom has to be earned, he acknowledges the compliment and observes, “It’s really just an extraordinary thing to get to do. I don’t think a lot of people actually get to do what they want for a living and keep doing it.”
He is doing it with such variety, drawing from country, jazz, folk, western swing and blues, often mixing it with appealingly twisted humor. The critics love him.
His latest offering, 2012’s “Release Me,” represents a transition into a new chapter of his career after 26 years and 11 albums with Curb Records. He chose primarily cover songs that have been an important part of his career.
Lovett contributed two originals to the set: “The Girl with the Holiday Smile” and “Night’s Lullaby,” spotlighting Nickel Creek’s Sara and Sean Watkins.
He feels his albums work together in presenting a point of view. “All the songs on the albums provide a part of the full picture that is me or my point of view I’m trying to express,” he explains, “which ultimately reflects how I think about things and the things I see.”
He still believes his values and goals, as a person and a musician, are quite basic. Others may view him as a star. Lovett thinks of himself as “(just) a guy from outside Houston.”
The artist says the same curiosity about people that made him write songs also attracted him to major in journalism at Texas A&M, where he graduated in 1980.
“I was writing songs before I started to study journalism. I was a history major before I changed to journalism,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed the interaction in journalism. We had a daily newspaper in college. I really enjoyed the personable aspect, the interviews were really fun. I still get to do that (participate in the interview process).”
Now he gets to talk to many people about his heartfelt songs.
Entertainment Weekly once noted that Lovett is enjoying the perks that come with being “the brainy crowd’s hippest songwriter.”
Revered director Robert Altman sought him for his films.
Then there’s Mary-Chapin Carpenter, whose 1992 single, “I Feel Lucky,” had her fantasizing in song that “Lyle Lovett’s right beside me with his hand upon my thigh…Hot do, I feel lucky tonight.”
Lovett laughs. “I’ve known Chapin since ‘86. That was such a nice thing for her to put me in a song,” he says.
Lovett has a feeling that the people who enjoy what he does are a lot like him. “They are people like me who like to listen to all different kinds of music and are really interested in music,” he explains. “I approach my songs from really a narrative (perspective) and I look for musical support for these stories.”
He does not believe it is his job to necessarily possess a great depth of vocabulary, and history, in styles of music.
“If I do a jazz record, for example, I don’t feel it’s my job to reflect a serious knowledge of jazz. I use jazz to tell stories. I don’t feel like I’m a real jazz musician, and that’s the same with other genres, including country,” he says.
Lovett says he was lucky to get in on an experimental stage in country.
“That was a time when Nashville was kind of looking for the next thing,” he elaborates. “In 1984, there were very few country artists who were selling country records,” he says.
He says there was a discrepancy between enjoying a lot of airplay, but not having that translate to sales. “It seemed record companies were trying to bridge that gap to the next act that would get airplay and sales and, in the process, sort of elevate the level of success (in country).”
Though he certainly cannot be pinned down as an artist of a particular genre, Lovett appreciates the directness of the lyrics in country music. “I like the way country songs tell a story, and the direct way they are emotionally. The songs are very direct. They get right to the heart of what’s being said, and the sincerity.”
Songwriters in any musical category can learn from this, he adds.
When it gets right down to it, he says, he really believes his music reflects the way he thinks.
Lovett: “A musician friend in 1979 told me, ‘It’s a weird thing doing this, the things you have to make yourself think about yourself to stand up on stage, and think that you have something to give that you want people to listen to you, the things that you have to think about yourself to be a writer.
“I think about that all the time. I often wonder why should I be saying how I feel about what other people are doing, why should I be able to do that? That’s the thing that gets me started writing: really other people, bouncing into other people and relationships, not just romantic relationships.”
Humor has a role in it all. “When comedians say ‘I love making people laugh,’ that sounds like a line,” Lovett says. “The audience is giving that to you. It does make you feel good. I feel a great deal of ego gratification when that happens.”
What he admires about people who can say things in a funny way is his belief that humor reflects a great insight into people and the way they feel. “That’s what’s so relevant about it,” he explains. “I aspired to that. I shoot for that: sort of a funny and true combination in the songs in which I’m trying to be funny.”
He listened to country and rock growing up and became serious about songwriting when he attended college. Texas troubadour Guy Clark brought Lovett’s songs to the attention of MCA Records, Nashville.
“People are very nice to me. It’s a great feeling when they say they know my songs,” Lovett says.
It all comes down to the song, he adds, when asked about his strength as an artist.
“When I say I can offer something that you can’t get from anybody else, I’m really only talking about point of view,” he explains. “In doing my own songs and writing about things that are real in my life, I hope to not just present a persona, but really present a person. And the song being the vehicle, I’m really just trying to write a song that holds together from beginning to end, like trying to write a story that makes sense and in making sense reflects meaning to a person.”