Americana Music Association Trailblazer award winner Lyle Lovett was the keynote interview at the AMA conference. Warren Zanes of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame conducted the hour-long interview in the Listening Room at the conference.
Zanes began by assessing a problem. “Twenty years,” he said of Lovett’s career, “and we’ve got an hour.” That problem is not unlike the dilemma that has plagued Lovett for his entire career. With a diverse variety that has ranged from big-band jazz to straight-ahead country to rock to western swing, distilling Lovett’s music down to a simple, safe label has been difficult at best. As a result, people who were at a loss for how to define him concentrated on his hair instead.
“It didn’t bother me,” Lovett said with his ubiquitous dry sense of humor. “In fact, my proudest moment came when the New York Times ran a cartoon that featured my hair shaking hands with Don King’s hair.”
Lovett was part of what he described as the “Class of ’86,” a group of country performers who burst onto the scene with critically-acclaimed, solidly country-sounding albums that revived country music commercially following years of lackluster sales in the post-Urban Cowboy era. “It was a time when artists were having radio hits,” Lovett said, “but that didn’t translate into sales.” Lovett’s self-titled MCA debut, along with breakout releases by k.d. lang, Steve Earle, and Randy Travis combined with established acts such as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and George Strait to create a short-lived but exciting period of “neo-traditionalism” in country music.
Lovett clearly stood apart from the other members of the “Class of ‘86” thanks to his frequently sardonic lyrics. While his first hit, “Farther Down the Line,” fit comfortably next to the latest hit by Strait on country radio, other songs raised eyebrows. “God Will,” a song about an unforgiving lover who has been cheated on (“I thought he was just right,” Lovett said of the bitterness of the song’s protagonist), was particularly controversial. Pontiac’s “She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife,” “L.A. County” (which Lovett would introduce in concert as, “The old story – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy shoots girl”), and “If I Had a Boat” did not improve Lovett’s standing with those looking for songs that were lyrically more influenced by Harlan Howard than Randy Newman. By the time he covered “Stand By Your Man” on Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, it was apparent that country fans were unaccustomed to “smart aleck” (Lovett’s own description) lyrics and unwilling to adjust. When asked if he thought he had crossed the line with the song “Fat Babies,” Lovett quickly said, “Yes. Absolutely.”
However, while his sales slacked off, his quality increased, and he won a Grammy for The Road to Ensenada.
“I’ve never been overly burdened with commercial success,” Lovett quipped. “You don’t want to try to appeal to everybody. I mean, who wants to be like that?”
Lovett’s influence can be found in his native Texas. “There is an entitled bravado for being born in Texas,” he said. “It’s true people are proud of being from Texas for no apparent reason.” However, the state, where everything from Mexican music from across the border to pure country music to the rock of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison could be heard, provided a fertile background for Lovett.
“The first album I owned myself,” Lovett said, “that was not a part of my parents’ record collection, was Santana’s Abraxis album. It was a confirmation gift given to me by my strict Baptist aunt and uncle, who didn’t look at the cover. And, if they did, they didn’t realize what was going on.
“But that album was great. I remember trying to work out Santana’s guitar parts.”
Lovett was in a band called the Individuals, so named, as Lovett said, “Because we were seldom playing the same song at the same time.” Lovett says the reason he joined the band was “I owned a guitar. I couldn’t play it, but I owned it.”
Lovett pointed out that people of the modern age do not have just music to credit as influences. “Our influences are more a product of the modern world,” he said. “We are not isolated anymore with all the technology.”
Songwriting comes natural to Lovett. He does not ponder over any preconceived “rules” “That takes a more conscious approach than I’m capable,” he said. “I remember seeing ‘rules of songwriting’ posted on the wall (of a recording studio). Rule number one said, ‘Write your best song.’ Rule number two said, ‘Write your worst song.’ I stopped reading there.
“Songwriting, for me, starts with an emotional response,” he said. He said he cannot write from someone else’s ideas, although, he admitted, “I think it would be great to take someone’s idea and write a really terrible song, then play it for them and let them see just how bad it is.”
Lovett feels he must be a songwriter. “You create it. You’re an artist. But, if someone tells you what to sing, you’re just a presenter.”
“We all pursue music because we’re fans.”