“It’s just more of my songs.”
That was Lyle Lovett’s deadpan, tongue-in-cheek reply when asked to describe the music on his last album, My Baby Don’t Tolerate.
In fact, “deadpan” and “tongue-in-cheek” are good descriptors of almost everything Lovett says, sings or writes. Indeed, he once told a crowd, “Most of my songs start out as jokes. The ones people think are serious are the ones that just aren’t funny.”
Lovett’s droll demeanor and wry humor have endeared him to a certain segment of the pop audience ever since he first caused a buzz in the late 1980s with breakthrough discs like Pontiac and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Lovett’s dry wit always comes through in his music, whether he’s doing ironic variations on classic forms or playing a heartfelt country-folk ballad. Of course, his odd features, lanky frame, spiffy duds and ascending coif also add to his exotic, sexy-nerd persona.
Grounding Lovett’s deadpan drollery are his deep roots in Texas folk, blues, country and Western swing. Lovett, who performs at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Thursday, made his first musical splash in Nashville, but he was born and raised on the rural family homestead in Klein, Texas, north of Houston.
Clearly, Lovett paid attention to the local music while growing up, and by the time he got to Texas A&M as a journalism student in the mid-1970s, the Texas-outlaw-country movement was in full swing, as Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings and Kinky Friedman were finding new possibilities in the synergy of country, blues and rock.
Those off-kilter influences could be heard in Lovett’s music from the start. He signed his first deal with major label MCA Nashville in 1986, but his music was clearly too quirky for Nashville’s formulaic impulses, and by ’89, he had moved to MCA’s “pop” division in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve always been able to follow my own tastes,” Lovett once told No Depression magazine. “And my taste is a combination of the records my parents listened to — Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, and Lefty Frizzell — and the Texas singer/songwriters I listened to in college.
“Being able to apply really good musicians to the singer/songwriter form makes for a lot of fun. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with budgets that allow me to do that.”
What first caught the country-roots audience by surprise was Lovett’s introduction of the “Large Band” in ’89 — a tight, swinging ensemble that found a new spin on the intersection of country, blues and jazz originally explored by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys way back in the ’30s.
Lovett’s public profile has ebbed and flowed, but it was probably at its highest during his odd-couple/short-lived marriage to Julia Roberts in the early ’90s. That was about the same time he launched a second-track career as an actor, with his typically deadpan-quirky performance as Detective DeLongpre in Robert Altman’s The Player.
Lovett’s low-key vibe was perfectly suited for Altman’s eccentric and distinctive directorial style, and he subsequently became part of Altman’s “stable,” appearing in three more Altman films — Short Cuts (1993), Ready to Wear (1995) and Cookie’s Fortune (1999) — and doing the soundtrack for Altman’s Dr. T. & The Women (2000).
Lovett also ventured into other, non-Altman projects, taking roles in films like Anjelica Huston’s Bastard out of Carolina and the clever, oddball comedy The Opposite of Sex. Lovett also made a cameo appearance in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Life in the slow lane
But in the last decade, his musical output has slowed a bit. He’s released only three studio albums since ’96 (plus a live album). That layoff was partly due, no doubt, to the multiple leg-bone fractures he suffered when he was charged by a bull on the family ranch in 2002. One of those CDs, Step Inside This House, in ’98, signaled a turn back to his Texas roots, as the disc was an homage to the great Texas country-folk songwriters that form Lovett’s musical bedrock.
His latest disc, now three years old, was a diverse romp through various musical styles. Tracks like “Cute as a Bug” and “The Truck Song” were country-rocking love letters to a couple of his favorite vehicles. “San Antonio Girl” was fittingly named — the tune spun to a sprightly Western-swing groove — while the dry-humored “Election Day” and the more somber “You Were Always There” added jazz changes to the mix. The title track mined a deep Texas-blues vein, meanwhile, and “I’m Gonna Wait” was a nod to old-time gospel.
What was most notable about My Baby Don’t Tolerate, though, was its energy level. There was nary a country-folk tune in sight; almost every track rode a brisk tempo.
“These songs are definitely groove-oriented,” Lovett told No Depression. “They’re written to be fun to play live. So many times, you do an arrangement in the studio, and you go out on the road and expand it, and it always sounds better that way. So this time, I thought I would anticipate that process, and come up with live arrangements in the studio.”
Jim Manheim, a contributing editor for All Music Guide and AMG’s Guide to Country Music, has been following Lovett since the mid-1980s. “It always amazes me that his music has never stopped developing in all that time,” says Manheim. “Most successful artists have one or two good ideas, which they can then go ahead and milk for a few years, if they’re lucky. But think about Lyle: By now he could really do three totally different shows.
“He started out doing almost traditional country, like ‘Farther Down the Line,’ and there’s always been a lot of Texas country in his humorous songs like ‘She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife),'” adds Manheim. “He created a hybrid of Big Band music, Western swing and black gospel that’s totally unlike anything else out there. And he does a lot of really poetic singer/songwriter material, both of his own and by other artists.
“The most amazing thing is: He can put all this together in a single show and make it seem like it’s all part of his own personality. He really is one-of-a-kind.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first wrote about Lyle Lovett in 1990. He can be reached at email@example.com.]
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band play Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 24. Tickets are $43.50 and $58.50. 259-5544.