Breaking news, guys! Did you know that, even if you’re not from Texas, Texas wants you anyway? It’s true.
Lyle Lovett is one of those guys who, if you’re from North America and never heard of him, your folks should be charged with criminally negligent cultural education. Most people’s original impression of ol’ Lyle is a huge mass of curly Eraserhead hair and a face so lopsided it looks like two different faces grafted together. (Oddly, he is still attractive.)
Lovett’s first album (which is a cracking good one itself) was released in 1986, and he’s been putting out quality work ever since. Every record of his combines the basics of country music with flourishes from folk, soul music, jazz, gospel, cabaret, blues, even garage rock. When I was a kid, I loved his music for lines like, “If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean/ And if I had a pony, I’d ride it on my boat,” which is an awesome idea even when you’re not six years old. Now I love his music for its wryness – he has a delightful, gentle sense of humour in his songs – and complexity. Lyle Lovett is the guy you play to people when they say they hate country music.
(By the way, can we finally put to rest the cultural meme that’s been around forever, that it’s ok to say you like all music “except country and rap”? It’s so lame. Country music has Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris and Leo Kottke and Lyle up there. Rap has Blackalicious and Jurassic 5 and Aesop Rock and NASA. I could go on. No genre is so boxable that you can write it off forever.)
The Road To Ensenada won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 1997, and it’s not difficult to understand why. All of Lovett’s trademark genre-meshing is on full display, and it’s laced throughout with a tongue-in-cheek sense of laughter, gleefully poking fun at both the country genre and its fans. The opening song, “Don’t Touch My Hat,” is a perfect example: a modern cowboy love song with old-fashioned twang, dedicated to his Stetson:
From there the album bounces into the jazzy dance rhythms of “Her First Mistake,” the glorious sing-along choruses of “Private Conversation,” and the mournful “Promises.” I can’t listen to “Private Conversation” without recalling how my mother and I wore out our cassette tape of this album by playing it over and over in the car and singing along at the top of our lungs, especially that bit on “Fiona” where Lovett holds a high note for eight measures. Even the dog would howl along.
Other songs appear to have a closer basis in reality. Lyle Lovett was married to Julia Roberts for nearly two years (yes, really) and Ensenada was the first album he released after their divorce. My mother has always sworn that “I Can’t Love You Anymore” must be about Julia (unfortunately, I can’t find a video for this song, but it’s great). “My angel in distress/ You look ok to me,” is a gorgeous, wry encapsulation of complicated emotion, and that’s really what Lovett does best. He takes all these tangly emotions and wraps them up in a nice little package, and even if it’s the worst breakup you’ve ever had, he somehow makes it all funny. You’ll still be crying, but there’s the ghost of a smile underneath. (If you want the answer as to whether Julia really is that angel in distress, check the interviews I list at the end of the article.)
Lovett could never have made this album alone; there are lots of guest performers, all of whom are essential. Special mention should really be made of Stuart Duncan, who plays fiddle on The Road To Ensenada and who makes his mark on nearly every song. Other folks who make an appearance are Russ Kunkel, famous session drummer; the amazing baritone Sweet Pea Atkinson; Paul Franklin on a gorgeous steel guitar; and Randy Newman (!) guesting on “Long Tall Texan,” a great little duet between the two gentle giants of country.
Lovett was born and raised in Houston, and he’s at least six feet tall (several inches taller if you count his hair). “Long Tall Texan” might be his definitive song about home, if he hadn’t gone and written one of the most infectious, hilarious, downright perfect songs about his state that’s ever been: “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” which skewers tourists, Northerners, other Southern states, and most of all the image of a typical Texan guy. Check out the live version, complete with Lyle’s spoken introduction:
This is the only thing, ever, that has made me want to go to Texas. Just to say that I heard Lyle Lovett play there, and that he sang this song.
If you want to read more about the guy, and the other stuff he’s done, there are some great interviews and articles about him out there: Long Tall Lyle, Not Necessarily About Julia, and a discography, The Thinking Man’s Cowboy.
It’s a busy musical weeked for me, P’neers! On Saturday night, afternoon for you guys in the New World, I’ll be live-blogging the Eurovision awards. This should be amazing. Azerbaijan is hosting, Jedward are back in the finals, and apparently Russia may be represented by a gang of singing grandmothers. Tune in to follow along!
On Sunday I’m fulfilling a long-held dream: I’m going to see the Talking Head’s Stop Making Sense in a real actual movie theatre for a sing-along. My next column will be a Very Special A/V Review of the film, and the first part of a David Byrne Bonanza. (Byrnanza?) Don’t miss it!