If there’s one guy who’s become almost synonymous with Texas, it’s Lyle Lovett. Not only has he sung more rhapsodies to his home state than he can count — including the famous made-for-tourism tune, “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” the chorus of which contains that fabulous followup, “But Texas wants you anyway” — he’s also released a double album, Step Inside This House, full of songs written by his favorite Texas tunesmiths. And his only live album, Live in Texas, is supposedly to be pronounced in the verb form, i.e., to live, as opposed to “in person.”
His superb current release, Natural Forces, is another collection of songs written by many of the same Lone Star folks who populate Step Inside This House: Americana stalwarts Townes Van Zandt, David Ball, Vince Bell, Eric Taylor, Tommy Elskes and Don Sanders. Lovett also includes a co-write with Robert Earl Keen (“It’s Rock and Roll”) and another with his longtime fiancÚ, April Kimble (“Pantry”), plus two solo compositions: the title tune and “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel.”
During a conversation in one of his favorite lunchtime haunts near his home in Klein, outside of Houston, Lovett talked about how the album came to be.
“What I was trying to do was play songs that have been a part of my musical life, so none of these songs were songs that I learned for this record,” he says. “They were songs that I’ve known for years. The simple fact was, it’s been two years since my last record, and I was eager to record ‘Natural Forces’ and ‘Pantry’ and ‘Farmer Brown.’ … But I didn’t have enough other songs that I was happy with that I wanted to put with ’em. And I wanted to make a record, and I thought it was a good chance to record some of these songs that weren’t on Step Inside This House.”
Just like the vast state from which they originate, these songs range far and wide. Lovett, after all, has never fit into the country slot Nashville initially intended for him. He’s as much a jazz, gospel, blues, swing and folk artist as he is anything related to country. While the up-tempo “Pantry” and “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” are laden with fiddles (and humorous double entendres), and “It’s Rock and Roll” is an uncharacteristic actual rocker reminiscent in tone to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Her Name” (“the little teenyboppers will beg for onenight stands so they can feel important when they tell all their friends”) the covers are more often poignant. They’re more about the songwriter and the singer than any genre — as it should be.
Taylor’s “Whooping Crane,” Bell’s “Sun and Moon and Stars,” Sanders’ “Bayou Song” — Lovett imbues them all with an ache that sounds so real, even though he says he doesn’t know where he finds it.
“It’s fun to record somebody else’s song, but you always want to do justice to it,” Lovett says simply.
Before he recorded the title song for Step Inside This House, he even asked its author, Guy Clark, for permission. Clark hadn’t yet recorded it himself, and therefore deserved first dibs, Lovett explained.
“Guy was really nice about lettin’ me do it, and I called him afterward and offered to send it to him, and he said ‘Sure,’” Lovett recalls. “And I said, ‘I hope I didn’t mess it up,’ and he said — Guy is so cool, he said something that was just like a great lesson, you know — if you write something, you should be able to stand behind it. … He said ‘Man, you can’t mess up one of my songs.’ And I just thought, that’s the kind of confidence, that’s how you’re supposed to feel about your songs. And if you don’t feel that way about one of your songs, then by God, don’t play it.”
Clark, considered a titan in Texas songwriting circles, is also one of Lovett’s tourmates. When he’s not out with his big-as- Texas Large Band, Lovett has been doing intimate songwriter-in-the-round shows with Clark, fellow Texan Joe Ely and Tennessean John Hiatt. They’ve even recorded together, capturing three complete shows at the Fox Theater in Redwood City, Calif. Red tape with their respective record labels has, unfortunately, prevented them from releasing any of it, but Lovett still hopes it will see the light of day.
In the meantime, when he’s not on the road, he stays close to the family homestead. Lovett lives on farmland his family has owned since his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side started the German- Lutheran town. He breeds quarter horses, and is involved in the National Reining Horse Association. He even references an association riding event in the song, “Natural Forces,” and used an actual announcer’s voice in it.
If there’s one thing Lovett, like most Texans, is about it’s authenticity. You can hear it in every song on “Natural Forces” — and on every song he’s ever done, whether he wrote it or simply made it his own.
On the Bill
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band play Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Friday, July 30. Doors at 6 p.m.
Taj Mahal open. Tickets start at $34.50. 18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 720-865-2494.