Country Music Maverick Lyle Lovett Feels Right at Home on the Strange
Lyle Lovett is a singer; whether or not he is a country singer, exactly, is the sort of question that could keep a fair-size philosophy department busy for decades. On the one hand, Lovett lives near Houston, drives a pickup and wears cowboy boots; on the other, he doesn't drink, has no interest in bass fishing and will admit, when cornered, that he owns an espresso machine ("It was a gift!" he claims). In the procountry category, Lovett sings about rodeos and chip-kicking redneck women; in the evidence-to-the-contrary department, his lyrics include the words "disenfranchised" and "escargot." Like many country stars, Lovett began his career singing and playing guitar in bars and clubs; unlike many country stars, he was often accompanied by a cellist. That was largely because his best friend played one. Besides, says Lovett, "There's always room for cello."
Lately radio stations and record stores have been making room for Lovett, a 30-year-old singer-songwriter who combines a break-your-heart Texas tenor with lyrics as precise—and quirky—as Randy Newman's. In "God Will," Lovett asks the musical question, "Who keeps on trusting you, when you've been cheating?" and answers, cathartically if not compassionately, "God does, but I don't/God will, but I won't/And that's the difference between God and me." In "She's No Lady," he sings, "The preacher asked her/And she said, 'I do'/The preacher asked me/And she said, 'Yes, he does too'/He said 'I now pronounce you 99 to life/Son, she's no lady, she's your wife.' " Sincere or sardonic, Lovett's songs—from his 1986 debut album, Lyle Lovett, and the current, bluesier Pontiac—have brought him raves from such diverse critics as singer Rosanne Cash ("too hip for vinyl"), guitarist Leo Kottke ("Great music. Great hair") and the Louisville Courier-Journal, whose reviewer described Lovett as "a man with a spirit big as Texas, who still knows how to dance in thin French shoes."
This year some of that dancing has been verbal. A few listeners found hints of misogyny in "She's No Lady," and it didn't help that in another Lovett song, L.A. County, the narrator shoots his ex-sweetheart on her wedding day. "I was just kidding! It was just a joke!" says Lovett, perhaps a tad exasperated. "In 'She's No Lady,' it's like, you know, people who are happily married bitch about it, and that's all that is. It's not just women, it's the way women and men are together. The only reason the song is from a male point of view is because I sound really stupid in a falsetto." Also, he finds it difficult to get onstage and call himself a skunk. "A lot of times when I write, the female character is doing something to the male character," says Lovett. "Frequently it's something that I have actually done in a relationship. And rather than point the finger at myself, it's a lot more fun to blame somebody else."
He willingly accepts responsibility for a distinguishing nonmusical characteristic: a head of shrubbery that has been called "the tallest hair in Nashville" and been compared, favorably, to an electrocuted poodle. "I think my hair is only unusual in the context of country music," says Lovett, who enjoys the fact that, like his lyrics, his tonsorial construction leaves people bemused and a little unsure about what he's up to. Adds Lovett: "I really don't believe that I'm the only person in country music with this kind of hair. All those guys who wear hats—Dwight Yoakum, George Strait—actually have hair just like mine."
Like his music, Lovett's roots are a mix of country and cosmopolitan. He grew up in Klein, Texas, a rural community named for his great-great-grandfather, Adam Klein, a German Lutheran immigrant who settled there in 1849. More than a hundred years later, Lovett still calls Klein home, as do his parents, William and Bernell—who live next door—and an extended family of uncles and cousins. Lovett says that background gave him a strong sense of belonging—"When you go to school with the same 12 kids from first to eighth grade, you can't help but feel like one of the gang"—as did his close relationship with his parents. "They have always been very supportive and have always given me a lot of responsibility," says Lovett. "When I was in high school, I worked in a motorcycle shop and used to race, which they were scared to death of. But my dad was my pit crew, and Mom took Super 8 movies of every race I was in."
Lovett started playing guitar at 7 and first performed professionally while attending Texas A&M, where he earned a B.A. in journalism in 1980. After graduation, he made a name for himself on the Texas club circuit, but his big break came in Luxembourg—yes, the one with the castles—when he played a music festival there in 1983. An American band, J. David Sloan and the Rogues, took pity on Lovett, who was accompanied only by his guitar, and backed him on a few songs. After returning to the States, Lovett recorded a demo tape with the Rogues, intending to sell it after his shows. Instead, MCA/Curb records signed him, and three of the songs became Top 20 country singles.
Lovett isn't getting rich off country music, in part because of the expense of touring with his nine-piece backup group, the Large Band ("it's not really a 'big band,' " Lyle explains). Could he afford, say, a 1965 pink Cadillac, a car that might mesh with his musical style? "No, probably not," says Lovett. How about a '62 Chevy Impala? "Maybe, with the right financing." Although he "would like to be married and have kids," he currently lives alone, with one cat and, as of a few weeks ago, four kittens. For a good time, he likes to watch the Today show. ("Nobody says, 'I'll be right back' like Jane Pauley") and Donahue with the sound off ("so I can try to guess what the topic is").
Though he isn't strictly a country-western singer, he does have respect for certain of the genre's hallowed traditions. "It might be fun to get a guitar-shaped swimming pool," says Lovett, "and just let people wonder whether you were serious or not."
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