Lyle lovett hair

An unruly lock of curly dark hair strays over a smattering of freckles atop that angular nose.

Tall and trim, Lyle Lovett doesn’t seem the least bit gaunt in a blue sport shirt with rolled-up sleeves. A pair of sharp-toed cowboy boots sticks out from his khaki pants as a further antithesis to Lovett’s slick, uptown image.

Another contrast to his shadowy onstage persona: He smiles readily during conversation over coffee and mineral water in his room at the Fairmount Hotel during a recent interview in Dallas (it’s too noisy to talk in the restaurant, he explains).

Put it all together and he seems younger somehow than 32, less worldly than his sophisticated music would indicate.

Lyle Lovett, the sultan of suave onstage in shiny tailored suits, is quite the eccentric innocent. If he really is a misogynist, as they say, then he’s a disarming one.

He says he is surprised at the sexist label the news media have begun to affix to the writer of “She’s Hot to Go” and “She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife).” “In most of my songs about relationships, the male point of view is really the buffoon, he’s the butt of the joke,” Lovett says.

Besides, Lovett says, the male point of view he lampoons definitely is out there.

“I don’t think it’s anybody’s responsibility to write only as things ought to be,” he says. “I think writing is about identifying and grasping aspects of human nature that exist.”

His hardest challenge, he says, “always has been and always will be, is to write a good song. Every time I write a song, I feel like it’ll be the last song I’ll ever write. I’m really neurotic about it.”

For a while, Lovett’s passion for writing took two paths – music and journalism – and, like a good storyteller, he draws parallels.

“I certainly sympathize about writing a story,” he says. “A lot of times it ends up being different than what you thought it’d be.”

Like his life.

He grew up – and still lives – on family land, his mother’s father’s old farm outside Houston. His mother’s ancestors arrived in the region in the 1840s.

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“You still see what’s left of the old farm places, but there’s subdivisions kind of all around,” Lovett says. “I live between my mom’s sister – my Aunt Jeanette – and Mom and Dad. Then Uncle Calvin lives right on the other side.”

As a child, Lovett got encouragement from his mother to try different things. She wanted him to take piano lessons. His folks got him a guitar when he was in grade school.

“I went to a Lutheran school so I was the only guy that had a guitar, so just having a guitar made me the musician among us,” he says.

But his studies took a different direction in college.

Lovett switched from history to journalism as an undergraduate at Texas A&M; University, where he graduated in 1980, and later returned to study German.

Being an Aggie “wasn’t a family thing,” Lovett laughs. “My folks both went to U of H (University of Houston), because they both worked and went to school at night. I remember when they graduated, it was when I was real young, before I started school.

“But a cousin of mine, a second cousin, actually, was a year ahead of me and he was going to A&M;, and during my senior year of high school I’d go up and visit him. It really seemed like a place that was away from home to me. I hadn’t gotten out too much, in terms of traveling, so it seemed like going off to school to me.

“It was really only an hour and 20 minutes from the house, so it was just as easy to drive up to A&M; as it would’ve been to drive across town to the University of Houston. And I never went to Austin, because going someplace that was three hours away from home just seemed way too far away.”

He began songwriting at 16, played in restaurants at 18 and had an all-original song catalog by 21.

“I was interested in the whole Texas singer/songwriter thing, what was going on at that time,” Lovett says.

“They (restaurant patrons) would want to hear things they’d heard on the radio, and I was playing Townes Van Zandt songs, Willis Alan Ramsey songs. Guy Clark songs, Steve Fromholz songs, Michael Murphey songs. The few people who were into it, were really into it, so they were the kind of people you’d like to sit down to talk to afterward.”

But somehow, it didn’t strike him as a career.

“Where I grew up, nobody played music for a living. It didn’t seem like a real thing, making records and having a viable job in the entertainment business,” he says.

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“The thing that I felt like I had to offer were songs. I’m not a real musician; I’ve not studied. I’m not a real singer. The reason someone would come to hear me are these songs. So that’s the way I’ve pursued it.”

It was a turning point when, at 21, Lovett could perform in songwriters’ haunts such as Houston’s Anderson Fair, Austin’s Emma Jo’s and the Cactus Cafe, and Poor David’s Pub in Dallas.

The next big step was an accident.

In the early 1980s, Lovett wanted only to peddle some of his compositions – with no thought of stardom for himself. But the cards held something different.

“The Large Band idea started in 1984 when I did my first demos with Billy Williams and J. David Sloan and the Rogues band out of Phoenix. Meeting those guys was a real influential musical part of my development. I’d never recorded with a band before,” he says.

The genesis of the Large Band, which would go on to perform with Lovett, “started the first day we went into the studio. We cut four songs. Those songs were ‘Cowboy Man,’ ‘Give Back My Heart,’ ‘If I Were the Man You Wanted’ and ‘Closing Time.’ With those four songs I went to Nashville.”

Lovett chose to go the country route because he felt success was more easily obtained there for a fledgling songwriter. Plus the four songs of his recorded repertoire were definite country tunes.

“It was more just one little step after another,” he says.

Since then he’s had three albums, including a Grammy award winner – all without virtue of a lot of top radio hits. Radio’s silence perhaps can be traced to Lovett’s genre-blending style, which invites a struggle for descriptive phrases.

“Jazz-blues-country” is one of the most common.

“We did a whole string of Reba McEntire dates (as an opening act) as a cello-conga trio,” Lovett recalls. “We were playing to real country audiences and there was little or no recognition at that point. They just thought we were weird.”

Well, not so much weird as hard to classify. Lovett doesn’t fit into a niche like Harry Connick Jr., whom he admires.

Connick “is a jazz guy, in the same way that Randy Travis is a country guy,” Lovett explains. “Being a songwriter, being detached from a whole tradition of jazz or a real tradition of country, I feel like I’m a songwriter who takes from those traditions and uses those styles and influences to support what I’m trying to say lyrically. I’m not coming from any true musical tradition.”

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Instead, Lovett just writes what comes out of himself.

“Most of my personal experience is by observation,” he laughs. “Things can start out with a thread of personal experience, something that makes you want to write about it, and once you get going and the narrative develops, at that point you can turn it into writing a story with an impact. The artistic motivation really blends in with the craft of songwriting.”

Lovett’s work deals with disturbing personalities, like the wife who delights in tearing down her mate or the man who stands over the shoulder of a newspaper reader, finally declaring that “life is so uncertain.”

“It’s not really a matter of wanting to make them uncomfortable, but I do want to move people,” Lovett says. “I don’t want anything I write to be innocuous. I’m not trying to be creepy, but I do want my songs to be something to think about. It’s nice to have a song that can work on different levels, that you can enjoy it without thinking about it, but I don’t want it to only work as background music.

“I want something that can be discovered the second, third or tenth time you hear it. I want to trigger something in the listener’s imagination. But there should be enough of a cohesive narrative about the song that it can stand up on its own.”

It’s good that his songs are self-contained because of his legendary reticence onstage. Lovett says this characteristic is a part of his personality.

“I’ve always been a quiet person, you know, and my voice just doesn’t carry. I stand there and sing my songs; I don’t feel comfortable in an outgoing way,” he says. “Francine (Reed, vocalist with the Large Band) brings that outgoing aspect to the show.

“I enjoy talking to the audience, but I don’t consider myself a real dynamic person. It’s more like sitting down and talking to somebody instead of like whammo I’m onstage. Being onstage is a very unnatural thing.”

This month, he steps off the stage and in front of a camera.

“Robert Altman has asked me to be in his next film,” he says. “What was attractive to me about it is it has nothing to do with music. It’s a film based on one of Raymond Carver’s short stories. I’ve never done any acting.”

He’ll leap into it anyway, not afraid to cross creative boundaries.

After all, he’s already crossed musical ones by doing things exactly the way he wants.

For the German-speaking-journalist/Lutheran-school-guitar-picker, it all started out so uncertain. But Lyle Lovett has proved it’s never too late, when you go out for lunch meat and life hands you a cheeseburger.

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