Lyle Lovett is a Zen master of cool and calm, no doubt about it. But on this particular occasion he is just a wee bit ruffled. An article in The New York Times recounting a motorbike ride he took with a reporter through the Hill Country got botched in the edit. It quotes him calling Luckenbach "just a gig," something this next-generation descendant of the Outlaws, Gonzos and Cosmic Cowboy would never say.
Lovett knows a thing or two about the journalism game, as he studied it at Texas A&M and wrote for the college paper. So it also irks him that interviewers keep asking why My Baby Don't Tolerate is his first album of new songs in seven years and whether that means his songwriting had hit a dry well in the interim. And Lovett don't tolerate such talk, albeit with his composed bearing still intact.
"Those kinds of questions are frankly really insulting," he says. "The press is unwilling to let you do anything out of the ordinary for you. This is my sixth release in the last seven years."
The tote board includes a live album, a soundtrack and album for Robert Altman's film Dr. T & the Women and his two-CD tribute to the Texas songwriters who inspired him, Step Inside This House. And two collections: the Smile CD, a compendium of his movie songs for the pop audience, and Cowboy Man, from his label's Nashville division. As well as seven movie roles, a TV special for Disney, the death of his father in 1999, a tussle with a bull in early 2002 that landed him in the hospital with a shattered right leg...and just plain living his life. "My career and life have been quite full since The Road to Ensenada," Lovett says.
But they keep asking: Why has it taken him seven years to make an album of 13 new songs? "That seems to be the first question in every interview that I've done. Finally I just want to say, 'Fuck you. What have you done?'"
Even when uttering an expletive, Lovett invests it with no furor and only a smidgen of exasperation. He hardly fits the popular Aggie mold, even when he cusses, though photos in the new CD's booklet find him atop a quarter horse and feature his cattle-ranching uncle and cousin. He may be a good ol' boy in Saville Road and Rodeo Drive suits, but Lyle Lovett is still dyed-in-the-wool-and-leather Texan. Back in the mid-1990s, while dining at The Ivy, a Beverly Hills power-munching boîte, he even advised his companion from Austin: "Try the meat loaf. It's the closest thing you can get out here to the food at Threadgill's."
And like what was once said of a fellow Texan, Dr Pepper, Lyle Lovett is frequently so misunderstood. But if you want to know him better, My Baby Don't Tolerate offers glimpses. He explains that the album finds him "sort of talking about my physical place in the world and what's important to me. And that's what the songs are about." One of the best songs on the CD (if not one of his best ever), "In My Own Mind," talks about his life down on the family farm while also admitting listeners into the internal world of a writer.
With the exception of two of his gospel-flavored numbers, My Baby Don't Tolerate is probably Lovett's most country recording since his eponymous debut nearly 18 years ago. That is, "if you call what I do country. Most of these arrangements are kind of country. I think my stuff's a lot more country than country stuff these days," he notes.
It's an observation rather than a bitch point when Lovett talks about what Nashville calls country. After all, he's hardly been shut out by the industry, as some off-brand country artists feel they have. Rather, Lovett has coaxed together his own audience from the peripheries of country, folk, softer rock, jazz and more. If he is country music, he's the Williams-Sonoma or NPR of country--upscale fare for discerning, intelligent consumers--and not the NASCAR or CMT.
Yet Lovett's not afraid to get his boots--though probably not his collection of hand-tooled treasures--down in the mud and manure of real life on the farm. The place he lives in the world is Klein, a town outside Houston founded by his mother's family in the late 1840s. With suburbia sprawling its way in during recent decades, the family spread was broken up. "Most of the place was sold out of the family in 1980. And I wasn't able to buy it back until 1995," he explains. "So I really feel like my life's work has been just trying to keep as much of my grandpa's place together as I can.
"My family is very important to me. And our home place is important to me," says Lovett, who warned going into the phone interview that a call may come in about the flowers he is sending to his mother, who will turn 74 the next day. "My uncle still works the place. [His name is Calvin Klein, and his jeans are not designer.] Our place is the home base for his cattle operation." Lovett also started a breeding operation for quarter horses for the track he has overseen since his father's passing. And, of course, he keeps riding horses.
Yes, Lovett was once tabloid fodder during his romance with Julia Roberts, a.k.a. America's Sweetheart. And yes, he records in Los Angeles and rubs shoulders and appears in movies with Hollywood hotshots. But when asked if being back home in Texas is a respite from show business, he hesitates a bit and ponders the notion. "Well...yeah! I guess. Not that you need relief from it. I love playing music. I love sitting around in my house playing the guitar trying to make up songs. That's what I always did for fun."
Then Lovett reaches for a feeling. "It still...it still...it still doesn't seem like a real job to me. What seems like a real job is making sure you've got the winter grass planted and the fertilizer out. Making sure the animals are taken care of. That's a responsibility that you have to look after constantly. And that's the kind of stuff I grew up around that was considered to be a real job. This deal--I'm not sure it'll ever feel like a real job. I feel really privileged to do it. It's fun."
Lovett also has enjoyed a fortune to match his considerable talent. He got his first guitar at age 6 as a gift from his parents. In college at A&M, music became a genuine passion. He picked and sang on the porch of "This Old House" with new friends Robert Earl Keen (with whom he co-wrote that song) and Bryan Duckworth. He booked the college coffeehouse and wrote about the performers for the school paper. He later rose through the Houston and Texas listening-room circuit to a music publishing contract and then a record deal, slipping through a rent in the Nashville fabric that MCA Records left open for fellow Texans Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith. And his country was sophisticated enough to find, cultivate and keep an urbane audience whose loyalties have allowed him to "do things as I want to. And that's kind of important. If you're an artist, it's important to follow your inclinations and do what you want to do."
And over the past seven years, doing the various things he has wanted to do, Lovett has consistently exercised his keen sense of quality control, which should make listeners (if maybe not interviewers) happy he takes time to ensure everything he does is his best. "The projects I've done in the time since The Road to Ensenada were important projects to me. And they all took time. I'm very involved in the studio. I'm there from the first day of recording to the last day of mastering. I enjoy working in the studio. I'm sort of in charge of every project. I see them through to the very end, and they are very time-consuming. We've gone out and supported every one of them." And that's why, he says, it's been seven years.
Oh, yes. There were also those days back home on the farm when, on the average morning, "I get up and go to the barn and fool around out there and help with the feeding. It's just therapeutic." Then he spends much of the day at his kitchen table "doing the music-business stuff. When you do have this kind of job, it's not like you ever unplug from the business side of things." But even if still plugged in, Lovett is also grounded at home in Klein. And maybe that's why he's on a steady path of success to his 20th anniversary as a recording artist and his audience probably doesn't care as much as journalists that it's been seven years since The Road to Ensenada.
"The business of things can be frustrating, I guess," Lovett says. "The one thing that's for sure." He pauses almost in prayerful thanks. "This is my 12th release overall. I feel so lucky to have been able to do this. When I think about it: My first record came out in 1986. Guys that I am playing with tonight onstage I met 20 years ago and even longer ago when it comes to [cellist] John Hagen and [percussionist and best pal] James Gilmer. I think, 'Man, how lucky am I?' The thing that's for sure is that you hope to do well enough to keep doing it. That's always what I've aspired to. I want to do well enough to keep doing it."
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