Lyle Lovett doesn’t let himself get tied down to a set list with his concerts. Yes, he has one, but it’s hardly set in stone. To script a show so tightly would rob Lovett of one of his main joys of performing, the flexibility to respond to the audience and play requests or to alter the selection of songs to fit the mood of the evening.
“No two shows are the same in that way,” Lovett says. “I mean, if you’re open to the possibility of interacting with the audience, and that really is the fun part for me, that’s what makes the shows different from one another, even if you played a similar set. But I always like to allow for requests. The set list really isn’t a set deal. It’s really just sort of a guide for us, from which we can sort of jump off.”
That Lovett would take that approach to his concerts makes sense for a guy whose career hasn’t followed the standard script for success as a music artist.
Lovett was originally promoted to the mainstream country market alongside artists like Steve Earle, k.d. lang and Nanci Griffith — as something of a maverick artist who was still rooted in traditional country music.
That was accurate to a point, and certainly his first two CDs, a 1986 self-titled release and 1988’s Pontiac, were strongly influenced by traditional country.
But Lovett showed early on he wasn’t going to be fenced in stylistically. And with his third CD, 1989’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, he broke any mold that might have been solidifying around his music. Featuring a backing group that included fiddle, cello, a full horn section and backup singers (his now-familiar Large Band), Lovett added big-band-styled jazz, soul, blues and rock and roll to his arsenal, without losing country as a foundation of his music.
His albums since then have cut a similarly wide swath stylistically, establishing Lovett as one of the most versatile artists in all of contemporary music. Clearly, he hasn’t followed the usual script for hit-making success, which usually means establishing a clearly defined style and sticking closely to that formula from that point forward.
“If I had a strategy my career might have been different,” Lovett says, a summation that shows both humor and truth. “To be able to go out and play live with people you enjoy playing with, that really is the joy of being in this sort of business and doing it. It’s not what comes of it. It’s the getting to do it. That really is its own reward.”
Lovett’s latest CD, Release Me, continues a thread he started with his 1998 two-CD set, Step Inside This House, which featured his versions of songs by writers who had most influenced his music and his songwriting, including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt and Steven Fromholz.
He returned to that concept on the 2009 CD Natural Forces, which included covers of songs by many of the same writers featured on Step Inside This House.
Now with Release Me, Lovett continues the concept of Step Inside This House and Natural Forces, but with a different slant. Where Step Inside This House and Natural Forces were focused mainly on country, Release Me falls more in the eclectic tradition of an album like Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. It has jazzy Western swing (“Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”), punchy blues (“White Boy Lost In The Blues”), horn-fueled R&B (“Isn’t That So”), pure country (the title song), spare acoustic balladry (“Understand You”) and even a Martin Luther hymn (“Keep Us Steadfast”).
Release Me marks an end of an era for Lovett. He has been with Curb Records (which has been affiliated with several different Universal-owned labels over the past two and a half decades) since the outset of his recording career. Release Me, though, completes his contract, and while Lovett says Curb and Universal have been very good to him, he is looking forward to being a free agent, particularly now that the traditional major label models for selling CDs have been undermined by downloading and Internet marketing.
“Just the idea that I can sort of do whatever occurs to me is really exciting,” Lovett says. “So if I wanted to give a song to people that subscribe to my mailing list, for example, I’d be able to do that.
“I imagine going forward that I’ll produce my own records and either look for some sort of distribution or figure out a way to get them out there for folks,” he says.
Lyle Lovett and his Large Band and Kris Kristofferson play Red Rocks Amphitheatre Monday, Aug. 19. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $50.25. 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.