I guess that Lyle Lovett was always going to be a bit of a cult. The singer-songwriter from Houston, Texas mined traditional seams, including both kinds of music…Country & Western. In the late 1980s commercial country music was dominated by the folksy rather than the folkie. Names like George Strait, Randy Travis & Reba McIntire prepared the way for Garth Brooks, the colossus of crossover country & for the abomination that is line-dancing. I’m sure Lyle would have liked a piece of that mass market, some of his songs sounded like hits to me. “Farther Down The Line”, from his 1986 debut, is one of these. It’s a cowboy song that’s about at least a couple of things. Lyle seemed a little diffident, his “Eraserhead Goes West” quiff a little different. The songs, as noted in this clip, maybe had too many words.
The debut LP, with its tinges of blues & Western swing was fully formed. Lyle was grouped with Steve Earle & Dwight Yoakum, two others who tipped their stetsons to the tradition but remained outsiders. I was not the only one who went back to those 70s artists like Guy Clark & Jesse Winchester. His arch, ironic wit, the intelligence, brought to mind Randy Newman, I know, high praise. Willie Nelson covered 2 of the songs on this record., “Farther…” & “If I Were The Man You Wanted (I Would Not Be The Man That I Am)”. He liked those titles with a punchline, “She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife)”. “I Married Her Because She Looks Like You”. A cerebral, droll, country crooner…Man, I lapped this stuff up.
The 3rd LP “…& His Large Band” consolidated his rep as a versatile, subtle performer. He had an audience for his stuff who knew it was not standard Nashville fare. Western swing revivalists, steel guitar & a fiddle, were often classed as barroom, dance groups. Lyle & the Large Band interpreted this music as respectfully & as capably as it had ever been. This was music for a concert hall or even a late-night jazz joint. In 1992 “Joshua Judges Ruth” took a detour to Memphis with gospel influenced, stripped down songs, serious themes of, religion, family & loss. “Joshua…” was not as immediate, the humour less on the surface. When it did give up its fascinating grace I played “Joshua…” all the time. “North Dakota”, has a spare beauty, I think it is Lyle Lovett’s masterwork.
So far so linear & then Lyle went to Hollywood.”The Player” (1992), was veteran film director Robert Altman’s return to box office favour after a decade of TV movies & penance for “Popeye”. Our boy joined the large ensemble cast, a detective double act with Whoopi Goldberg was a surprise. In “Short Cuts”, a complex, confident riff on L.A. he fits right in with all those real actors. Lyle was in “Pret-a-Porter” (1994), a sprawling satire on the sitting duck target of the fashion world. “I’m really in no danger of being perceived as a famous movie actor!”, it seems that he knew what was going on.
On the set of “The Player” he met Julia Roberts, the World’s Favourite Actress, the prettiest woman. I’m not sure what attracted Lyle to the millionaire beauty but just 3 weeks after getting together the couple went to Marion, Indiana, the birthplace of James Dean, to get married. What the…? A lot more people knew who Lyle was now, many of them journalists who were not slow in coming forward with their half-arsed opinions of him. “Intriguingly offbeat” wrote People magazine while over here the bottom feeders of the tabloids settled for “Mr Ugly”. I’m sure that many of us would find the charms of the silver screen’s preferred doe-eyed waif beguiling. Having your personal life exposed by the goatfuck of the modern 4th estate, for people who really couldn’t care less about you or your music, is probably less attractive. Just 21 months later the process of “conscious uncoupling” (© G. Paltrow) was entered into. America had its sweetheart back. I repeat, what the … ?
“I Love Everybody” (1994) was a bunch of songs from before his first record. The songs that do cut it make the LP worthwhile but there’s too much easy one-liner ironies & juvenilia for it to be a great record. I owned 5 Lyle Lovett records now & it seemed that that was enough. I know the succeeding work received praise & awards. His tunes rewarded a little patience & attention. I didn’t hear much that was better than the tunes I already had. It was this song, “South Texas Girl”, a melancholy, nostalgic jewel from 2007 that put me back on to him, sent me back to those early records & led me to check out the ones I had missed. The cover album of songs by fellow Texan writers, “Step Inside This House”, that’s good. At the time I had just thought…write some new tunes mate !
Recently I have been listening to Daniel Romano, a Canadian singer with a liking for the style & fashion of old time country music. He’s reviving Nudie suits, men called Hank & he’s doing it very well. Last year Jay Farrar, an artist I have a lot of time for, released “Honky Tonk”, a collection inspired by the Bakersfield sound popularised by Buck Owens & Merle Haggard. It’s tough to effectively blend revivalism & respect, tougher still to make old-time music contemporary & relevant to modern audiences. Lyle Lovett did all that stuff, did it with humour & elegance too. These guys who are new to it are a couple of decades & several albums behind.