Lyle Lovett - Biography
by Charles Reece
With hair that looks like Elvis starring in Eraserhead (although it has become tamed over the years), Lyle Lovett has a lanky frame and a voice to match. He sings with a slight curl on his upper lip and a permanently raised eyebrow, which complement his songs’ content. He tends to sing vignettes about ordinary people, reminiscent of his favorite authors John Cheever and Raymond Carver, with a degree of ironic detachment and an often darkly comical undertone. His literary observations and inclusive interest in the myriad forms of American music place Lovett squarely within the diverse country singer-songwriter movement that began in late-1960s’ Texas. Along with Steve Earle, he is the best of the next generation that began releasing albums in the 1980s.
Lovett’s deep commitment to his roots does not just stop with his musical heritage. He currently lives just North of Houston in Klein, Texas, where he was born on November 1, 1957. The town was named for his maternal great-great-grandfather, Adam Klein, a German émigré who settled there in the mid-19th century. In 1995, Lovett bought back much of Klein’s land and restored the house that his grandparents had built back in 1911. He is the only son of William and Bernell Lovett, both of whom he credits with developing his diverse musical style. His love of hymns began with his Lutheran upbringing (Bernell’s denomination), but his many Gospel-inspired songs owe more to having visited the Southern Baptist churches with William. In his parents’ record collection, he encountered a variety of artists, from Ray Charles and Glen Miller to Ray Price and Merle Haggard. His parents gave him his first guitar at age 7, with which he played “Long Tall Texan” for his first public performance in a school talent show during second grade. (He would later duet with Randy Newman on the song for Lovett’s album The Road to Ensenada.) After leaving work in Houston, Bernell would make the one-hour commute back to home, pick up her son and take him to his guitar lessons back in the city. That is a dedicated parent.
Lovett was a journalism and German language student at Texas A&M University during the late 1970s. It was as an undergraduate that he started to play clubs, write songs and immerse himself in the local music scene. Writing for the school paper, The Batallion, he had a chance to interview many of the singer-songwriters from the progressive country movement that he admired. Lovett would eventually co-write songs with some of his interviewees – including Willis Alan Ramsey [“That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” “North Dakota”] and Eric Taylor (“Fat Babies”) – as well as pay tribute to the movement with an album in which he covers their songs (Step Inside This House, 1998 MCA Records). His next-door neighbor in College Station was fellow journalism major, Robert Earl Keen, Jr., whose own musical career developed contemporaneously with Lovett’s. The two shared many of the same interests, co-wrote “This Old Porch” that has become part of both singers’ repertoires, and remain friends to this day. Lovett’s first big break came when another of his former interview subjects, Nanci Griffith, recorded his “If I Were The Woman You Wanted” for her 1984 album, Once in a Very Blue Moon (for which he contributed backing vocals).
Lovett’s solo career began to take shape that same year when fellow Texan singer-songwriter Guy Clark was impressed enough with his demo to pass it on to Tony Brown, a producer at MCA Records. Before signing with MCA, Lovett’s first solo recording was “The Boat Song” on the October 1985 issue of the illustrious LP-magazine Fast Folk, a bellwether journal of the folk music resurgence that began in the 1980s. His first long-player, Lyle Lovett, was released the following year on Curb Records, a subsidiary of MCA. The album was well-received both critically and commercially, producing five top 40 country hits: “Farther Down The Line” (#21), “God Will” (#18), “Why I Don’t Know” (#15), “Give Me Back My Heart (#13) and his highest ranking single to date, “Cowboy Man” (#10). The album was the closest Lovett ever came to the mainstream themes and styles prominent on country radio (with the honky-tonk revivalism of “Cowboy Man” to the dated 1980s keyboard sound on “You Can’t Resist It”). However, one can hear a foreshadowing of what was to come in the cock-browed wit of “God Will” that would become his trademark and the jazz-tinged “An Acceptable Level Of Ecstasy (The Wedding Song).”
Lovett’s second album, Pontiac (1987 MCA), was positively reviewed in country and rock publications alike, helping to expand his audience past a core country following and eventually reaching gold status (peaking at #12 on Billboard’s top country album list). It is to date the last time any of his singles made it into the country top 40: “She’s No Lady” peaked at #17 and “I Loved You Yesterday” at #24. Much critical commentary has suggested that Lovett’s slipping with the country audience was due to his branching away from country music. However, the genre has a more variegated pedigree than such commentary implies. What Lovett shares with the 1970s’ so-called progressive country movement in Texas is a willingness to explore all the styles that constitute the genre, including Southern gospel, country blues, Western swing, honky-tonk, Nashville pop, country-folk and country-rock. In that light, his progressivism starts to look a good deal more like traditionalism. Even though his subsequent singles have proven too diverse for a mainstream country radio, largely dominated by pop with a twang, most of his albums have done well on the country album charts.
Besides the increased prominence of the piano and horns on Pontiac’s second half, the record’s most important stylistic change was in the addition of backing vocalist Francine Reed. A blues vocalist in the vein of Etta James, Chicago-native Reed learned how to belt it out while singing in the gospel choirs of her youth. She became a permanent member of Lovett’s Large Band that he initially assembled to support the album, as a scaled-down version of the big bands from the swing era. Much of that band went on to record Lovett’s next album, appropriately titled Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (1989 MCA). Lovett had decent chart success with “I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You” (#45), a hard country comical version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. He also received a bit of media attention – if not necessarily commercial success – with his version of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” an ironic answer to the charges of sexism that occasionally crept into reviews of Pontiac. Otherwise, the album consists mostly of speakeasy-era jazz-influenced numbers by way of Moon Mullican and Bob Wills. The centerpiece of the album is undoubtedly Lovett’s duet with Reed on “What Do You Do/That’s The Glory Of Love,” in which husband and wife mock the other’s blasé routines in their marriage. The album garnered Lovett his first Grammy (for Best Male Country Vocal Performance).
The first half of the 1990s is when Lovett received the most media exposure. He relocated to Los Angeles to work on his fourth album, Joshua Judges Ruth (1992 MCA). During those first two years, he also produced Walter Hyatt’s King Tears (1990), contributed a cover of “Friend Of The Devil” to Deadicated (1991) – a Grateful Dead tribute album – and acted in Robert Altman’s 1992 feature, The Player (his big screen debut; he had previously acted in the 1983 televisual movie, Bill: On His Own, starring Mickey Rooney). It was on the set of Altman’s film that Lovett met Julia Roberts, whom he would marry in June of the following year. The marriage made the mild-mannered singer the unlikeliest of tabloid subjects. The increased exposure certainly did not hurt the reception of his new album. Despite none of its singles registering on the charts and being completely ignored by country radio, Joshua Judges Ruth became Lovett’s biggest selling album up to this point in his career (#57 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart). He found a new audience with regular rotation on VH1 and the adult alternative radio market. The album was a culmination of all Lovett’s musical interests, making it something of a definitive artistic statement. Its songs run his stylistic gamut, from Western swing (“I’ve Been To Memphis”) to honky-tonk (“She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To”) to 1970s-styled country (“She's Already Made Up Her Mind”) to R&B (“She Makes Me Feel Good”) to gospel (“Church”). Subsequent albums find Lovett honing his craft, rather than challenging his versatility.
Lovett won two more Grammies in 1994 for his collaborations with Al Green on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Best Pop Collaboration) and with Asleep at the Wheel on Bob Wills’ “Blues For Dixie” (Best Country Group Performance with Vocal). His fifth album, I Love Everybody, was released that same year. It consists of songs he had written as early as his undergraduate days, which is probably why the songs tend towards the darkly comical, rather than the more somber observations that can be found on his previous record. Far from being a collection of oddities and throwaways, this album demonstrates that Lovett started off as a songwriter on a level to which most can only aspire. The self-effacement of “They Don’t Like Me” would seem a direct response to the media circus that followed his marriage announcement. “Fat Babies” is Lovett at his misanthropic best. “Sonja” is a prime example of Lovett’s gift for satire; it’s comical, sad and truthful. With the exception of the country soul of “Penguins” and “Ain’t It Something,” the album is closest in style to Pontiac. Regardless, it failed to make much of a lasting commercial impression, falling off the album chart 13 weeks after it appeared at #26.
His marriage to Roberts ended in March 1995, a subject that he refuses to discuss in interviews. Some listeners have tried to divine secrets of their break-up in the oblique lyrics of Lovett’s 1996 album, The Road to Ensenada (MCA), but to little avail. For example, “Fiona” probably came from Roberts’ middle name, but the song is about a one-eyed Cajun gal. Continuing the direction of his previous effort, the album is indisputably country, featuring songs about destructive relationships (“It Ought To Be Easier”), heartache (“I Can’t Love You Anymore”), the Lone Star State (“That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)”) and cowboy hats (“Don’t Touch My Hat”). The record returned him to the country chart at #4 and peaked at #24 on the pop chart. Additionally, Ensenada won Lovett a Grammy (his fourth and final so far) for Best Country Album.
For the next 7 years, Lovett took a break from recording new songs (with the exception of the two that appeared on Anthology: Vol. 1, Cowboy Man in 2001). He released the two-disc Step Inside This House (1998 MCA), his take on songs from Texan or Texas-related songwriters who had inspired him early on (including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steven Fromholz). He followed the tribute album with his first concert recording, Live in Texas (1999), and his first film score, for Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women (2000), both on MCA. The film score was the last collaboration between the musician and the director, following Lovett’s previous two roles in Prêt-à-Porter (1994) and Cookie’s Fortune (1999). In 2003, he collected the songs (mostly pop standards) he had contributed to soundtracks as Smile, his final album for MCA.
Lovett moved back to Klein in the late 1990s. Around that same time, he gave a lecture at his old Alma Mater, where he met April Kimble, a journalism student whom he has been with ever since. She regularly introduces him on stage and was the likely inspiration for the song “San Antonio Girl” that appeared on Anthology: Vol. 1. He has managed to keep a lower profile than in his Hollywood period, but he briefly made the papers in 2002 when one of the bulls on his Uncle Calvin’s farm broke his leg, which had to be pinned back together due to the extensive damage. In 2003, he started recording new songs again when he signed with Lost Highway Records, which has so far released another stripped-down country album, My Baby Don’t Tolerate, that same year and his return to the big band sound, It’s Not Big It’s Large, in 2007. All the while, Lovett has continued to tour regularly and occasionally act in movies (e.g., The Opposite of Sex in 1998, The New Guy in 2002, The Open Road in 2008), as well as television (e.g., appearances on Mad About You and Dharma & Greg). In his leisure time, he prefers to stay on his farm where he rides horses and has family nearby. In 2009 Lovett released Natural Forces, followed in 2012 by Release Me.