Singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett has been a constant presence in the international music scene since his second single, "Cowboy Man," made its way into the top 10 on the country charts in 1986. While the Grammy Award-winning Houston, Texas, native jokes that he has never had a hit song, he has all the same amassed a dedicated fan base that has followed him over the course of his nearly 40-year career.
Lovett and His Large Band, an ensemble of his longtime collaborators, are currently on a tour of headlining engagements that brings them to Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson this Friday, Aug. 17. The Jackson Free Press recently spoke with Lovett over the phone to find out more about what audiences can expect and what is coming up next for him.
First off, do you mind if I record to get quotes right?
Not at all. I appreciate it. Thanks. Although, I'm fine with you cleaning them up and turning them into English.
[Laughs] Well, I won't change anything, but I'll make sure it's understandable.
Well, you know, writing is editing. One thing I enjoy about social media—which I largely disdain but engage in to try to get the word out about our shows and stuff—but the one thing I have enjoyed about it is you do have to think about writing a sentence. My personal feeling is that there is great value in sentences and writing a sentence. I rarely do a post that I don't go back and clean up.
I appreciate that. Not everyone thinks about the fact that people are going to read it or that it'll inform what they think about you.
Well, one thing about the modern digital world and our infinite ability to communicate is, you know, it really gives people a chance to reveal themselves. And people are all too willing to reveal themselves to a shocking extent, and reveal themselves not just in what they think they're saying but in how they say it, and what that says about them. All of that that your third-grade English teacher tried to impress upon you why spelling is important.
In terms of your career, how do you feel social media and being engaged in that way has affected you?
You know, it's like any tool at our disposal. Whether it's analog or digital, it's not about the tool. It's about how you use it. You can pick up a hammer and hit someone in the head with it, or you can build a house. It's all in how you use it, and I think, in this day and time, it's a help in terms of promoting shows or just letting people know you're around or in some cases—in my case—still exist. [Laughs]
You're in a genre of music that doesn't always value social media or connecting with people, and making sure they know you're still working. Why is that important to you?
So people show up. [Laughs] That's really it. You know, you don't ever want to force someone to come to your show, although that's an interesting idea. I'm not sure how I'd pull that off. But yeah, you just want anybody who might be interested to know you're actually going to be somewhere.
You've been playing music actively for about 40 years now. What does it mean to you to have that kind of longevity where people do care about what you're doing, want to come to shows and want to hear new music?
... It's a great feeling. You know, I started playing in clubs in 1976 when I was 18 years old. My high-school buddy Bruce Line and I got a gig at a local restaurant close to where we lived in the Houston area. And we got a gig a couple nights because their regular guy that played in the bar for people who were waiting for their tables, it was summertime, and he wanted a couple extra nights off a week. [Laughs] So we got hired, and you know, we worked up enough material to play four sets a night and then swap out some songs from night to night. And you know, I started playing somewhere every week from then on.
But never in 1976 would I have thought that in 2018 I would still be getting to do something that I love to do this much. I play music because I love playing, and I play music for fun. Never would I have dreamed then that I'd make my life out of something that I did for fun.
How do you feel your approach to how you write or how you perform has changed?
You know, I don't think it's changed, really. ... Still, the things that made it fun for me at the beginning are the things that make it fun for me now: stumbling onto an idea that makes you want to write a song about it or getting to play. It's not so much the performing in front of an audience that's the gratifying part. It's getting to be onstage with talented musicians is what makes playing fun.
Depending on how you approach it, playing music is a very in-the-moment experience every time you do it. Whether you're playing a brand-new song or playing a song you've played a million times, the playing of it is a new experience every time. I've gotten to work with such talented musicians over the years and have such amazing musicians in the band.
We always try to pay homage to a recording or to an arrangement that people are familiar with, but never have I asked the guys in my band to play it note for note the way they played it on a record. So we're not just reproducing something that already exists. We're having a musical conversation onstage. The people that I play with are talented enough that I can stand there in the middle of them and listen to them react to the rhythm of the song and listen to them do something different tonight than they did last night. That's all really entertaining to me.
Not everyone can play a song they wrote 30 years ago and have it feel fresh to them. It sounds like, for you, it's about playing with great musicians to make it feel fresh and interesting.
Well, it strikes me that way every night, and I mean, the musicians who are onstage with me on this tour, for example, range in longevity of working with them. John Hagen, who I started working with in 1979, plays cello. And I knew John before that. I met John in, I think, 1977. These are long relationships. (There is guitarist) Ray Herndon, who I started playing with in 1983. Ray was part of a group of musicians in Phoenix who were the house band at a great country nightclub in Phoenix called Mr. Lucky's. The band was J. David Sloan and the Rogues, and the music director of that band, Billy Williams, became my producer and worked on all my recordings through my record deal.
We teamed up with Tony Brown, who was head of A&R for MCA Nashville on my first three records, and Tony was the producer on the record-company side, but Billy was the producer I worked with doing demos and getting the arrangements to where we wanted them to be. And Billy continued on with me through my MCA Los Angeles days and up until he decided he just couldn't work anymore on the last couple records. Billy's 82, I think, now.
In that same band is (keyboard player) Matt Rollings, who was 18 years old when I met him. You know, Russ Kunkel plays drums in the band, and I first recorded with Russ in 1991. His son, Nathaniel, has engineered every record I've done since then. So it's those kinds of relationships. I mean, the core of the horn section are guys from the Muscle Shoals horns, who I started working with in 1988, the first time we took horns on the road.
Viktor Krauss plays bass in the band, and he started touring with me in 1994. Francine Reed, who sings in the band and is an incredible solo artist in her own right, ... I met Francine in 1984, and she recorded with me on demos we were doing then, and I've been singing with Francine ever since. So it's those long relationships that are important to me and allow for a lot of fun onstage.
What do you feel like having those long relationships does for you as a performer?
Knowing the musicians so well, I start from a very solid foundation, knowing that wherever we go inside a performance, it's going to be good, and feeling confident in that. And so, if you start from a confident place, you're able to enjoy what develops on any given evening.
Your last studio album, 2012's "Release Me," peaked at No. 9 on country album charts, and the title track peaked at No. 60 on the Billboard 200. What's it like to see your music still connecting with a wide audience like that?
I'm terrible at keeping up with numbers. Really, was it number nine on the country charts? I knew it did well on the Americana charts, and we were number one for several weeks, but I wasn't aware of that or the top 200 on Billboard. No, I'll tell you, that means a lot, that people are still paying attention to it. I hope to have a new record out within the next year. I can't quite announce it yet, but I'm doing a new record deal, so I'm excited about doing that and having a new record coming out.
But yeah, if people support your recordings and like them enough to want to come hear you live, that's the whole world really, in terms of being able to do this for a living. And you get to a certain point, touring and playing live, this is how I make a living, how all of us in the band make a living, and so, yeah, it is important to us. We want the show to be as good as it can be every night, you know, because we appreciate the people that support us. We appreciate the people who come to the shows and come back year after year.
What can people expect on this tour?
We're playing material from all my songs, across my whole catalog, and I really arrange the sets to feature the people who are in the band, you know? I try to pick songs that, at one point or another, highlight every member of the band. My objective is really, by the end of the show, I want the audience to feel as if it's gotten to know everybody onstage.
I noticed you also had a greatest hits album come out last year. How involved did you get to be in the process of selecting those songs?
I was not involved in that record at all. I was not consulted at all by Curb Records. My record deal was with Curb and MCA Music, the Universal Music Group, and it was Curb who took me to MCA and partnered with MCA. And I forget what it was legally, but after a certain amount of time, after the last record was released, all those recordings reverted back to Curb, so Curb released that.
And in fact, I've never had a hit, so to call something "greatest hits" was a little embarrassing to me. We did a compilation with MCA several years ago, back in the early 2000s, and we called it an anthology. But yeah, in fact, I didn't know about this latest compilation until it was released, and Holly Gleason, a publicist and writer in Nashville, sent me a snapshot and said, "Hey, just saw your new record. Congratulations!"
Sorry to bring up bad stuff there.
No, no! It's actually not. I mean, what you bring up, though, is something (where) it's nice for the public to know how it works. Once a record deal is over, the record company owns those recordings, depending on your deal, and this was my first record deal, so that's the way it worked. The record company owns those recordings and can do whatever it wants to with them.
You know, I've always been really involved in every aspect of my recording projects, from the first day of tracking through mastering. If something is going to tape, I'm there in the studio. I'm involved in the creation of the album packages. I'm involved in the typeface and involved in every aspect of the layout. Back in the LP days or in the CD booklet days, all that presentation is really important because I think, like in journalism, every word and every aspect of what you present says something about the product.
So for that to be, at some point, out of your hands and none of your business is kind of a funny feeling. I've never held that product in my hand, and I don't even know what songs are on it. I know what picture they used for the cover, but beyond that, I don't really think of that as one of my records. But that's how it works. They are my songs, and they are recordings I made, so I'm happy for people to have it, but it's interesting. It would've been really cool for the record company to say, "Hey, we'd like to do this, and we're going to do this, and we'd love your input."
It might have made a difference in what songs ended up on the "Greatest Hits."
You know, it might have. It might have. But once again, that was my record deal. I'm OK with all that. That's just how it works. It's nice when the people you work with are considerate enough to include you even if they don't have to, and they certainly don't have to.
I know you can't talk too much about your new record deal, but tell me about what people can anticipate from the music you've been working on.
Well, my songs all come from my life, really, and I ask myself sometimes, "Why would anybody be interested in anything that I'm doing?" I think the only thing I have to offer a listener that they can't get from somebody else is my point of view. So my songs are all point-of-view songs, and my new songs are likewise that point of view, and really reflect the world and what I think is important in the world. My hope is that my take on things is unique to me. My hope is that my take on things is something that people will have to come to me to get. Otherwise, I'm just another guy playing and singing.
Like you said, it's the things that you think are important. What is something you think is important to discuss in a song that maybe can't be communicated in other ways as easily?
Well, I don't know that that's true. Let me start by not supporting your premise. [Laughs] I don't know that people can't get that sort of information in other forms of writing, other forms of communication, but I think songs are a powerful way to communicate an idea. A song can hit a person's perception in many different ways, but chiefly, I think songs strike an emotional chord in people.
You know, reading something can be an intellectual and emotional experience. I think songs are more heavily weighted to an emotional experience. If the song is good enough, that emotional experience from listening to that song can make you want to listen to it again and make you think about what's in the song. That's what I like about listening to music, and that's why I love songs. My hope is that my songs can do that. But ultimately, I think music is an emotional medium and that's why music can exist outside of other forms of expression.
Is there anything in your music career you haven't had an opportunity to do but would like to do?
Gosh. No. I've gotten to do so many things! Just being able to continue playing music and playing with people I enjoy not just being onstage with but spending my life with, riding the bus with, and staying in touch with when we're not on the road, working on new ideas. People that you work with in any kind of work end up being really important in that they're a huge part of your life. It's a really nice thing to be able to work with people you enjoy being around because, ultimately when it's all said and done, you spend a lot of your life with those people. The joy of it for me is being able to continue doing just that: work with people that I like to work with.
In terms of creative opportunities, those serendipitous creative opportunities that come about, I'm just amazed at the kind of opportunities a person gets, just from doing something that he loves to do already. And I've gotten to work with so many people that I'm a fan of, so many of my heroes. Gosh, just in the last few months, I've gotten to be a part of a couple recording projects that I was just thrilled to be invited to (take part in). Gary Nunn from the Lost Gonzo Band in Texas, who were Michael (Martin) Murphey's band back on his first two records and then became Jerry Jeff Walker's band—Gary asked my buddy Robert (Earl) Keen and me to sing on a new recording of his classic song "London Homesick Blues," which was such a thrill for me. That's a song that, when I was 18 and playing in pizza joints, if I played four sets in a night, I had to play "London Homesick Blues" probably eight times. [Laughs] So I was really glad to do that.
And then, Michael Murphey, in doing some new recordings a few months ago, asked me to sing on one of his classic songs called "Drunken Lady of the Morning" off his first album. And I told him I thought it was a bad idea for me to sing on it, but I'd be happy to do it. So I got to spend an afternoon in a recording studio with Murph, who's one of my heroes and was one of the first people I got to interview when I was a journalism student at Texas A&M, writing for our daily paper, The Battalion. He was nice to me then, and he's still nice to me, and it was great fun to sing with him.
I've gotten to tour (and perform) with so many of my heroes, from getting to sing with Randy Newman, touring with Bonnie Raitt, touring with Guy Clark, and working with Willis Alan Ramsey over the years and Steven Fromholz, people I grew up listening to over the years. It's always a great feeling when you get to stand in the presence of somebody that you respect and admire, and then, when you get to know them personally a little bit, it makes it even better.
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band perform at 8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 17, at Thalia Mara Hall (255 E. Pascagoula St.). Ticket prices range from $30.50 to $75.50. The doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, visit lylelovett.com.