Cowboy Cool

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.

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Rob Patterson

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