Lyle Lovett

TrackAlbum
This Old PorchLyle Lovett
Closing TimeLyle Lovett
If I Had A BoatPontiac
LA CountyPontiac
Nobody Knows MeLyle Lovett and his Large Band
She’s Already Made Up Her MindJoshua Judges Ruth
Flyswatter / Ice Water Blues
(Monte Trenckmann's Blues)
Joshua Judges Ruth
FionaThe Road To Ensenada
Who Loves You BetterThe Road To Ensenada
Step Inside This House
(Step Inside My House)
Step Inside This House

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Lyle Lovett was one of a group of remarkably talented young, and relatively young, country singers who released their debut albums in 1986. This group also included Randy Travis, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and they often tended to be grouped together by the music press as part of what was described as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement in country music. However, while they all shared a deep respect for the pioneers of country music in the 1950s and early 1960s, over time, the musical differences between them were to become increasingly apparent. For example, Travis, who initially at least was the most commercially successful of the group, was the most traditionally minded of them and he was to go on to develop into, perhaps, the best ‘pure’ country singer since George Jones. Of the others, Yoakam was a superbly talented advocate of the virtues of honky-tonk music (his particular hero being Buck Owens) while Steve Earle was far more open to influences from rock music than were the others.

Lovett was a particularly distinctive member of this group, both in terms of his image, which was a highly unusual one for a country singer and for the central role which jazz influences were to play both in his singing style and in his songwriting. These influences were to be a particularly marked feature of his work from the time of the release of his third album, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, in 1989. One of the most interesting aspects of Lovett’s work since then is the way in which he combined this feature of it with the country, folk, gospel and western swing influences which had been central to his earlier work. Like Earle, Lovett was also strongly influenced by the two deans of Texan songwriting; the master craftsman Guy Clark and perhaps the greatest of them all, Townes Van Zandt (see toppermost #104). In some respects, however, it could be argued that Lovett’s songwriting owed more to the wry and detached style of the former than it did to the rawer and more visceral style of the latter.

In his early days as a performer, Lovett’s excellence as a songwriter was sometimes overshadowed by his distinctiveness as a character, which was especially marked in the country music circles in which he began his career. He stood out there for his elaborately coiffed hair and the refined courtliness of his manners. Indeed, Lovett’s close friend and fellow songwriter, Robert Earl Keen, was later to memorably describe his first appearance among the country songwriter circle at Texas A&M University, where they both studied, as being like ‘Kelsey Grammer arriving on the set of Hee-Haw’ (a country comedy show which was not noted for its sophistication). Throughout his career, Lovett was also to show a mastery at subverting country music stereotypes, through such sly gestures as recording a cover version of Tammy Wynette’s classic Stand By Your Man or writing songs with titles like She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To.

Such gestures would, however, mean little if Lovett was not such a masterful country singer and songwriter himself. His voice is among the very best in modern country music, smooth, supple and mellifluous. As a lyricist, he is also possessed of a sly wit which is second to none and which is only equalled, perhaps, by Randy Newman, with whom he has collaborated. Like Guy Clark, he is also a master storyteller, with a keen eye for detail, as in the deft portraits of the married couple and Jake, their ‘old dog … in the backyard’ in his great song, Flyswatter / Ice Water Blues (Monte Trenckmann’s Blues) from his 1992 album, Joshua Judges Ruth, which I have included here.

Lovett’s superb skills, both as a singer and a songwriter were already clearly evident on his debut self-titled album which contained several first rate songs. Of these, I have chosen the evocative This Old Porch, which he co-wrote with Robert Earl Keen. It is a nostalgic depiction of the house where they and other young songwriters used to meet on the campus of Texas A&M University. Closing Time, my second choice from that album, is quite simply a beautiful song and it remains the one with which he usually closes his concerts today. Pontiac, the album which Lovett released after his excellent first album, marked a further step in the evolution of his increasingly distinctive and quirky approach to songwriting. If I Had A Boat, for example, was a witty and almost surreal song, which undercut, in a beautifully wry way, some of the cowboy mythology on which country music itself was based. The album also featured one of Lovett’s best Western Swing style songs in Give Back My Heart, a track which was also an excellent example of his trademark sly wit. While I would have liked to have included that song here, I have instead selected the classic revenge song LA County, the lyric of which could almost be used as a scenario for a noir movie in itself.

On his third album, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, he extended his musical range even further, delving more deeply into the gospel and jazz influences which had underlain but had been less apparent in his earlier work. While Lovett’s vocal style and masterful phrasing had always shown traces of the influences of the great ‘crooners’ such as Bing Crosby, the new more jazz-oriented style of the band which he was to go on and record and tour with for the following decade allowed this influence freer rein. From His Large Band, I have included the fine ballad, Nobody Knows Me, in which Lovett combines wit and pathos to excellent effect. A similar combination is also apparent in my two selections from his 1992 album, Joshua Judges Ruth. The first of these, She’s Already Made Up Her Mind, is one of Lovett’s most haunting songs, while the second (as mentioned above) is a beautifully observed portrait of a marriage.

The Road To Ensenada, the album which he released at the time of the break-up of his marriage to Julia Roberts in 1993, is his masterpiece. There was a new emotional directness in his singing on it which greatly enhances the effect of the songs on the album. These were consistently excellent and it was difficult to decide which ones to exclude here. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. Of these, Fiona is a beautifully quirky depiction of an amazon-like woman who bears a strong resemblance to Lovett’s soon-to-be ex-wife (Fiona also happened to be Julia Roberts’ second name). Who Loves You Better Than I is a stunning song, with a classic country twist, which also features one of Lovett’s greatest vocal performances.

He followed The Road To Ensenada with a double album of covers, Step Inside This House. The album represented his personal tribute to both the older generation of Texan songwriters, including Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Willis Alan Ramsey (see toppermost #249), and to some of their younger counterparts, such as Robert Earl Keen. From it, I have chosen Lovett’s excellent version of the Guy Clark song, Step Inside This House, which demonstrates (as does the rest of this fine album) his extraordinary skill as an interpreter of other people’s songs.

Since then, Lyle Lovett has released a series of consistently interesting albums, almost all of which have included a number of superb covers of songs by other writers. However, his own songwriting seems to have entered something of a relatively fallow period and it has not again reached the heights which it achieved from the mid-1980s up until the late 1990s. Despite this, Lovett‘s earlier work clearly entitles him to be considered one of the finest songwriters of recent times and he remains an extraordinary singer, who is at home in a remarkable variety of musical styles. He also maintains a quirky individuality and a sharp wit, both of which are extremely refreshing given the bland uniformity which characterises much of the modern music industry.

Lyle Lovett Official Website

Lyle Lovett biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #270

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    May 7, 2014

    Thanks for a splendid overview. I really got into “Joshua Judges Ruth” when I bought a surround sound system, and the shop gave me a 5.1 surround copy to get me started. Church is phenomenal, as he uses the 5.1 format with the choir or congregation in the balcony high up behind you when you’re listening. It’s somewhat showy, but ranks with Pink Floyd’s Money as a surround sound sampler! Anyway, the song then survives its transfer to normal stereo.

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 9, 2014

    Peter thanks for this – ‘Church’ was in the final shake up but did not quite make it into the ten. Can imagine how good it would sound in surround sound. The backing singers on the track (Francine Reed, Sir Harry Bowens, Kathy Hazzard and Sweet Pea Atkinson) are amazing… There is an excellent youtube clip of Lovett performing it here.

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