The Enigma: Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett put the bottle of water to his lips. He drank, and he drank, and he drank. The audience started to titter, although I’m sure some people wondered when he would come up for air. He continued sucking down the water. The laughter spread.

Lovett stopped drinking — our noise had interrupted his thirst-quenching — turned to the audience, paused, and said, deadly serious and with what seemed like genuine puzzlement: “What?”

And here’s the best part: Nobody was sure whether the whole episode was a throwaway gag, or whether chugging that much water without pausing for breath is just something that Lyle Lovett does.

This happened in 1998 at a concert in Champaign, Illinois, although I’m guessing it might be a regular feature of Lovett’s shows. The anecdote has nothing, of course, to do with Lovett’s music, but it illustrates his inscrutable nature: Just who is this guy?

The oddity that is Lyle Lovett the human being and celebrity unfortunately obscures Lyle Lovett the singer and songwriter, and probably limits his appeal. For unless your musical vocabulary is limited to power chords, there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy at least some of his work. And if you like exquisite songcraft — the seemingly casual turn of the perfectly turned phrase, or a master class in arrangement and instrumentation — I guarantee you’ll fall in love. Even if you loathe country music.

Put simply, Lyle Lovett is one of the few artists who puts equal energy and skill into all components of songwriting: lyrics, music, and presentation. But he’s not just an artiste; he’s also a hell of an entertainer.

The Manicured Man

Even to longtime fans such as me, Lovett remains a mystery.

He’s a first-rate singer-songwriter but is better known to the public as the funny-looking guy who married Julia Roberts. That brief union highlighted two crucial elements of Lovett’s public image: the unspoken understanding that he might be the least-attractive celebrity on the planet, and the rarely articulated realization that in spite of that, there’s something about Lyle Lovett that’s tremendously appealing. In 1994, Esquire put him on its cover with the phrase “How to Be a Man.”

That headline tapped into the tremendous comic potential of Lyle Lovett — because of his looks and that famous pile of Eraserhead hair atop his head, he’s a punchline that doesn’t need a joke — but also referenced the very real allure of one of the most confident and gifted songwriters anywhere. He might be a walking caricature, but you could stare at that face for hours, particularly that long, crooked line of a mouth.

Lovett is a third-tier celebrity lurking on the fringes of popular culture, mostly through his infrequent supporting roles in movies (primarily for the legendary director Robert Altman) and his regular appearances on the talk-show circuit; he’s always good for a song and a few deadpanned one-liners on the guest couch. In Altman’s The Player, Lovett creates an unsettling presence simply by standing in the background, trying to look casual, watching. He also gamely plays off his oddball public persona, advising the slick and murderous movie executive Griffin Mill to buckle his safety belt, and at one point mimicking the famous “one of us” chant from Tod Browning’s Freaks, a morality tale focusing on circus sideshow attractions.

He has been known to make albums, too, although he’s just as likely to re-package old material as write and record new stuff. Since his debut in 1986, Lovett has collected a cult of devotees, primarily people who despise country music but love him.

Lovett seems to want the spotlight — if only to boost record sales — but he shuns anything that might actually reveal him personally. That Esquire piece was a playful bit of cat and mouse between the writer and Lovett, who studied journalism. A lengthy New Yorker profile last year had the weight of great detail — biographical and descriptive — but lacked any insight.

That interviewers seem to come up empty when questioning and writing about Lovett is little surprise. The best way to look at the man is through his music.

I’m not suggesting there’s much in the way of autobiography in his work; his songs are as coy and carefully manicured as his public image. But Lyle Lovett’s music is a rich field that reveals his seductiveness as a composer, performer, and human being.

True to His Roots and His Muse

The critical thing that must be said about Lovett’s work is that it’s not country. He certainly is — with the ever-present cowboy boots and hat — but on his albums he covers nearly the full range of popular and roots music. He frequently uses his Large Band — an ensemble of more than a dozen backup singers and players, including a horn section.

By staying true to his roots — Lovett was born (in 1957) and raised in Texas, was a member of Future Farmers of America, and went to Texas A&M — while also following his unruly musical muse, the singer-songwriter has given himself a considerable commercial handicap. He has too much Texas in him to break onto the pop charts, but his soul wanders too far afield for him to make much of a mark in country. He loves the fiddle and slide guitar, but also the brass and gospel, and he has a perfectionist streak that makes him better suited to detail-rich pop songs and austere, aching ballads. He should be a hero to the alt-country generation, but he’s too polished.

While that barrier-busting idiosyncrasy might alienate a large segment of the record-buying public, it’s a key reason his fans love him. Lovett gives us something to hold on to in country, even if we typically think of the genre (rightly or wrongly) as too coarse, simple, cocksure, and rote. Lyle Lovett is the antithesis of all of those adjectives, musically and personally — smooth, sophisticated, modest, and unpredictable.

On any Lovett record you’ll find what should be a maddening mix of styles and tones. The Road to Ensenada, his best and most-representative album, starts with Texas twang, moves to lounge jazz, shifts to straight-ahead pop, and then comes home to big-band country. On the back end, you’ll hear a trio of spare, mournful ballads that can break even the most hardened heart. Over the course of an hour, the album starts with plentiful laughs and gradually replaces them with clear-eyed, self-aware sorrow.

Gospel pops up frequently in his oeuvre, most notably in Joshua Judges Ruth’s “Church,” a rollicking, soulful number about hungry parishioners and the sly worshipper who conspires to free them from the verbose preacher: “And now everyone was getting so hungry / That the old ones started feeling ill / And the weak ones started passing out / And the young ones they could not sit still.”

The title track from his latest album, My Baby Don’t Tolerate, works in the blues idiom, while that record closes with a pair of gospel numbers. In the middle is “You Were Always There,” a lament whose music has the faintest aftertaste of the tropics, and consequently of hope. In songs such as that one, just a few notes of the carefully orchestrated tune tell you all you need to know about tone and feeling.

Still, it’s Lovett’s lyrics that really set his work apart. “If I Had a Boat” (from Pontiac) walks a line between childhood fantasy and adult knowing. It opens with its sweet, ridiculous chorus: “If I had a boat / I’d go out on the ocean / And if I had a pony / I’d ride him on my boat.” In the second verse, Lovett uses a pop-culture icon to cleverly introduce themes of discontent and exploitation: “The mystery masked man was smart / He got himself a Tonto / ‘Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free / But Tonto he was smarter / And one day said, ‘Kemo sabe / Kiss my ass, I bought a boat / I’m going out to sea.’”

His ballads are frequently devastating. “Baltimore,” from Joshua Judges Ruth, expertly describes parasitic neediness in the few words of a hyperbolic plea: “And if you go to Baltimore / Then I’ll see you in heaven / And as you breathe I’ll breathe no more / And I will surely die.”

And then the curveball: “Well you know I went to Baltimore / So confident and wise / And as I breathed she breathed no more / And she did surely die.”

What’s most amazing is that Lovett’s recordings are coherent in spite of their musical and emotional scopes. The thread that keeps things together is the singer’s voice; it’s a distinctive instrument that doesn’t have a great range but is employed with precision and perfect phrasing. He pinches it at times, and stretches it out at others, and often twists it into a slight vibrato; his vocal effects have a bizarre physicality to them, as if that voice had the mass and elasticity of Silly Putty.

Lovett’s sense of humor is dry and sometimes easy to miss, and it pops up in unexpected places. His straight, heartfelt reading of the Tammy Wynette classic “Stand by Your Man” (originally recorded for 1989’s Lyle Lovett & His Large Band) was used to great comic effect over the end credits of the gender-bending The Crying Game, and anything arch about the delivery would have oversold the joke.

The straight face is Lovett’s greatest comedic tool, and he employs it even in song titles; the humor is often the part of the title that should appear in parentheses: (You Can Have My Girl but) “Don’t Touch My Hat”; (I Don’t Love You Any Less but) “I Can’t Love You Anymore”; and “She’s No Lady” (She’s My Wife). The album title Joshua Judges Ruth is simply three consecutive books of the Bible turned into a declarative sentence.

Even the album artwork is a bit of a running gag. Lovett’s image is fuzzed out on Pontiac and appears reflected in a tabletop on Joshua Judges Ruth. His head is cut off just below the eyebrows on the cover of The Road to Ensenada. On Step Inside This House, he’s out-of-focus and has the top of his head lopped off, and it’s not hard to read into these choices a combination of modesty, self-consciousness, and self-effacement.

If I seem a little too eager about seeing Lovett, it’s because he’s been pretty stingy lately. In fact, the man has positively pissed me off in the past few years with what seems like an appalling tendency toward crassness. Between 1996’s The Road to Ensenada and 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate, Lovett released five CDs, including two collections of old studio material, one mostly instrumental soundtrack, and a live record. Only Step Inside This House, a two-CD set from 1998 paying tribute to the artist’s Texas songwriting influences, passes muster as a proper Lovett release.

The two new songs that were the hook for fans to buy the Cowboy Man anthology cruelly showed up on My Baby Don’t Tolerate two years later, and they’re virtually the same song anyway. Worst of all, after waiting seven years for My Baby ... , the album felt (and still feels) second-rate by his high standards — lyrically vague, lacking that Lovett pathos, and recycling musical ideas.

But his live shows remain terrific. At a recent concert, featuring Lovett on guitar, a percussionist, and a cellist, all of the Lyle trademarks were on display: the Texas showmanship, the sterling, exact musicianship cutting through boundaries, the clever wordplay, the sly humor, that amazing face.

Here’s hoping that he soon returns to that same spectacular form in his songwriting and recording.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.

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