By Lee Zimmerman
THE GREAT STATE OF TEXAS is known for many things – great football, great barbecue, big oil, women with big hair, men with big hats and the fact that, umm, everything is supposedly bigger there. The latter assertion may be cause for debate, but one thing is beyond question, the fact that among its other accomplishments, Texas has birthed some singular singers/songwriters, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen among them.
In a career that spans nearly 30 years, Lyle Lovett can claim inclusion in that distinguished legacy. With 13 albums, four Grammys, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Houston and the rarefied distinction of being cited as the Texas State Artist Musician for 2011 by the Texas Commission on the Arts, he’s gained fame as a tireless troubadour whose modesty and humility belies his considerable prowess.
“I really do appreciate the notice I’ve gotten and the recognition I’ve received,” Lovett said. “I value those honors highly. I remember each and every experience – getting the Grammys, being part of the show, getting to be a presenter and being able to be around people I admire and that I’m a fan of. That’s exciting. I got to go to the state capitol and receive the official Texas musician honors. That’s great recognition. But, ultimately, I really try to do my best work for myself. I think I’m a tougher critic than other people are. So if I write songs that I like enough and that I’m confident enough to play for people, I feel like I’m in good shape. The songs have to get past me first, and that’s the toughest part.”
We spoke with Lovett during a rare week off, back home in the rural south Texas community called Klein, where his ancestors first settled in during the mid-1800s. It’s where he was raised, and he’s resided there ever since. Mostly though, he’s out touring with either his Large Band or his Acoustic Group, two outfits that largely overlap and vary only in their numbers.
GOLDMINE: You seem to spend a lot of time on the road.
LYLE LOVETT: We average about 100 dates a year. It’s my job. That’s how I make a living. I just try to keep it all going. Playing is a real pleasure, especially when you get to play with some of the best musicians in the world.
GM: So what distinguishes the Large Band from the Acoustic Group these days?
LL: With the acoustic group, there are six of us instead of the 14 we have when we play as the Large Band. But everybody in the smaller group gets to play more than they get to in the Large Band. When we’re with the Large Band, we have to respect the arrangements and stay within the lines.
GM: It’s been more than two years since your last album “Release Me.” Do you have anything new on the horizon?
LL: I continue to play, write new songs and try to figure out what I’m going to do next. I would like to put out a new album sometime in the next year.
GM: You just left your long time label, Curb. Have you decided who you’re going to sign with, or whether you’ll opt to go indie?
LL: I don’t know yet. I’ve been talking to some labels but haven’t decided what to do. I’ve first got to decide what kind of album it’s going to be, but I haven’t made the final decision as to what direction I’m going to go in, or who I’m going to do it with. I’ll do something for sure, but I’m not ready to sign on the dotted line.
GM: One of the hallmarks of your career is the fact that you’ve never been afraid to dabble in different genres. You’ve gone from country to swing to big band to gospel and touched on practically everything in between. So what inspires that eclectic muse of yours?
LL: I’ve been really lucky to have been associated with business people who allow me to follow my natural inclinations. That’s a wonderful thing. I’ve never felt as if I had to restrict myself to one particular genre. I’ve actually been encouraged to do the kind of stuff I want to do, and to look into different types of styles, and then combine them to make them all come out in a unified way. I’ve always just liked different kinds of music. I feel like it’s a natural tendency not to be locked into one particular thing and to be able to appreciate a variety of styles.
GM: Do you ever find your fans are a bit baffled by your stylistic shifts back and forth? Is there ever any pushback on that front?
LL: No, fortunately I really don’t feel pushback from my fans. They’ve been so supportive over the years. Then again, I don’t engage in any kind of ongoing dialogue on the subject either. I think it’s really important as an artist – or in any kind of business at all – to lead. You have to do what you think is best, and hope that people will appreciate what you do. You can’t just guess what some perceived audience might want. You just have to do what you think is right. And if you do that, and do a good job at it, the people who do support you will be happy. I’ve gotten to make records and tour around, but I haven’t had the kind of huge mainstream success that tends to lock you into something. So being a little under the radar might be liberating. When you have a certain amount of success, there’s pressure to repeat that. I’ve been lucky enough to make money for the folks that I’m in business with, but not so much that they come at me and say, “You’ve got to do that again.” In a way, being a little bit under the radar is a good thing.
GM: You come from a hallowed tradition, one you share with a host of legendary Texas singer/songwriters – Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen among them. Do you feel a kinship to those musicians?
LL: I’m such a fan of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Steven Fromholtz and Ray Wylie Hubbard, all those guys that were playing out when I was first learning how to play guitar, and I was sort of dreaming of how to play myself. I’m more an admirer of all that from a fan’s standpoint. I feel grateful that I’ve gotten to know Guy Clark, and that I knew Townes and I’ve gotten to be friends with Steven Fromholtz over the years. I’m grateful for those relationships, but I have trouble trying to rise myself up to that Texas tradition. I hold those writers in such high esteem, so just to be mentioned in the same breath is quite a compliment.
GM: You’ve also done a lot of acting over the years. Most recently, we’ve seen you on the FX series “The Bridge.” How’s that working out?
LL: I’ve been a recurring guest on the show, which means I’m only on every now and then. Somebody will ask me to do another acting project, but I really don’t pursue acting like an actor would pursue acting. Playing music is always my first priority, and occasionally if somebody asks for me and there’s a chance to do something. I always enjoy it. “The Bridge” is a series is based on a Scandinavian TV series and the American version is based in El Paso, Texas. The context is a very real one, especially for those of us who live in Southeast Texas. It’s very true to life. I was in three episodes during the first season, and six or seven this last season, so it gave me a little more to do. I don’t know if it’s renewed for next season, but I do know they didn’t kill me off. You never know. They never tell you. When they send me a new script, I sort of hold my breath. It’s strange. They kill off a lot of good actors in this show.
GM: Real life can be hazardous enough without worrying about your fictional self.
LL: (laughs) That’s right. There were some actors who were killed off and they took it kind of personally. (laughs)
GM: I guess getting killed off can be a little harsher than your average, everyday pink slip.
LL: (laughs) It’s a pretty violent show, but it’s still a lot of fun, really. And it’s gotten good notices. GM