Lyle Lovett: Music between great players can be a conversation

Photo: Liz Kreutz.

2022 is turning out to be a good year for Lyle Lovett, not least because he’s, to use a cowboy metaphor, back in the saddle.

“I’ve been out of work for two years,” he says mischievously. Normally, Lovett gives more than 100 concerts a year, whether or not he has released new works. but the pandemic has stuck him at home in Houston, with his wife and their now four-year-old twins, in the house his grandfather built in 1911. Domesticity suits Lovett. “There was plenty to do every minute of every day. Absolutely no boredom!” He sounds like he means it; casual mentions of paternal tenderness bubbled from time to time in our conversation.

Still, for a change of scenery and staying creatively hip, Lovett hosted 20 live streams (some free, some paid), where he would invite colleagues like John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin, Robert Earl Keen, Dwight Yoakam, and Marcus King. At times, he and his guest would get over a quarter of a million live views – not bad for a guy who hadn’t released an album since 2012. That recording drought ended on May 13. 2022 with a new assortment of songs titled June 12 (light boos to his label, Verve Records, for not choosing June 12 as the release date). In other news, Lovett’s best-selling album to date, 1992 Joshua Judge Ruthwas re-released in March as a two-disc Vinyl Me Please vinylmeplease.com/products/lyle-lovett-joshua-judges-ruth”>anniversary edition.

June 12 marks a return to the western-swing arrangements of the 1989 masterful Lyle Lovett and his big band and the dynamism of 2007 It’s not big it’s big. The paradox and joy of the Large Band, like that of other great swing ensembles, is that the performances manage to be both tight and loose. Tightness lies in the interaction between musicians at the top of their game and locking into the groove; the looseness emerges in the way the beat and rhythm induce almost involuntary sways and gyrations in listeners.

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Four smoky (and steaming) jazz covers grace Lovett’s new album: “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” both immortalized by Nat King Cole; the instrumental “Cookin’ at the Continental” by Horace Silver; and “Peel Me a Grape”, the definitive versions of which were recorded by Anita O’Day and Blossom Dearie.

The slight quirkiness that has always been an integral part of Lovett’s style returns to the fore on this final track. Although the song is written from the perspective of a spoiled kept woman, he sings it like he once did “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette. Without the slightest hint of genderbending, Lovett throws herself directly and convincingly into the female first-person perspective.

The original seven on June 12 include the whimsical medley “Pants Is Overrated,” which could become an anthem for the Zoom crowd the pandemic has spawned. The highlight of the album is the title track, a beautiful love letter from an old man who tells his children that the day they were born was the source of his greatest happiness.

On paper, it’s a sap affair. But in the hands of a master musician and storyteller, the three chords, spartan lyrics and restrained delivery are devastating. It may be Lyle Lovett’s most quietly moving song since 1989’s “Nobody Knows Me” or 1992’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind.” All three are introspective masterpieces of verbal economy and musical.

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Photo: Michael Wilson.

No strict master
This Monday morning, the four-time Grammy winner calls me from his tour bus in Fort Lauderdale, two months before the release of the new album and halfway through a series of post-pandemic concerts (footnote 1 ) that take him through 10 Southern states. I half expected him to be on the monosyllabic side, but Lovett quickly forms endless stories and observations with little encouragement and apparent enthusiasm. We were supposed to talk for an hour and a half, but he parried two polite interruptions from a PR guy who reminded us that time was up, and we ended up talking for three hours.

He tells me he plays with a four-piece acoustic ensemble that includes veterans like bassist Viktor Krauss and guitarist and mandolinist Jeff White. The next tour will take him across the country with the Large Band, which means hiring up to 15 musicians, including a horn section and backing vocals. Making finances work is a big part of the equation.

“The Wide Band is kind of a summer setup,” says Lovett. “Other times, like this tour we’re doing right now with the acoustic band, our expenses are lower, and it allows us to play in markets that aren’t necessarily in competition with the markets we play with the Large. Band. We can get a bit off the main highway, you know – perform in smaller venues. Artists sometimes talk about their creative ideas without considering the economic realities of their ability to execute them. J try to avoid that. In terms of touring, it’s based on having it all released at the end, and being able to pay me too.”

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Lyle’s Acoustic Band, left to right: Jeff White, Luke Bulla, Josh Swift, LL and Viktor Krauss, at Gruene Hall. Photo: Liz Kreutz.

Lovett’s star vocalist since 1984, soul and blues singer Francine Reed, turns 75 this summer. Considering retirement, she might not join the Large Band for the full tour. “I tried to figure out what we were going to do without Francine, how we would represent the album without her,” says Lovett. “I can use a vocal group instead. I’m not inclined to try to find a female singer to replace Francine and do Francine parts. Because there’s only one Francine.”

Joining the big ensemble for sure are Lovett’s pivotal organist and pianist, Jim Cox, and the great Russ Kunkel on drums.

Lovett laughs when I mention the uncompromising discipline that Frank Zappa and James Brown demanded of their band members. The latter was even known to demand fines from players who made a mistake. Lovett is not that kind of executioner.

“The direction of the group starts with me because I invent the songs”, he admits. “But the creative environment that I like to work in is one where collaboration is encouraged. When we present songs live, I like to reference the arrangements that exist on the albums, but I don’t insist that the musicians play note for note what is on a recording. I like to pay homage to a recorded arrangement, but I also like to hear the spontaneity when playing live. Music between great musicians can be a conversation. Standing in the middle of the stage and listen to two great minds think and bounce [ideas] each other is exciting. It makes the music come alive every night. When one of my guys makes a mistake, it’s kind of nice, because then we can tease him about it after the show.”

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Lovett is also adept at extracting the best skills from his studio staff, especially longtime producer and engineer Chuck Ainlay, who helmed June 12and to whom I feel indebted for the amazing sound of 1989 Lyle Lovett and his big band. Although Lovett doesn’t consider himself an audiophile, he enjoys good sound in concert halls and at home. He came to see his home stereo in the late ’80s, after MCA Nashville arranged for Pioneer Electronics to sponsor some Lovett tours. “They gave me a stereo and let me choose from their finest gear. So I picked up a Pioneer Elite receiver and also managed to get my hands on a pair of Tannoy studio monitors that Doug Sax from the Mastering Lab in LA had modified. Joshua Judge Ruth was mixed. It’s been my go-to system ever since.”


Footnote 1: Here is the hope.—Jim Austin

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