To those who aver that country music is just a bunch of tired clichés, I would venture a two-word riposte: Lyle Lovett. And a two-word song title, God Will, from his eponymous first album.
God Will begins with weepy steel guitar and what appears to be a standard miserable country man-done-bad refrain:
Who keeps on trusting you
When you’ve been cheating
And spending your nights on the town?
And who keeps on saying that he still wants you
When you’re through running around?
And who keeps on loving you
When you’ve been lying
Saying things ain’t what they seem?
Then comes the kicker:
But I don’t
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me.
This subversive two-minute masterpiece was the first song I heard by Lovett, who is also remarkable for his spectular hairdos, his resemblance to the Easter Island statues and the fact that he was briefly married to, as the showbiz desk would put it, Pretty Woman Julia Roberts. The album came out in 1986, and I’ve been enjoying his music ever since.
Lyle Pearce Lovett was born in 1957 in Houston, Texas, and was raised in the Lutheran church. He graduated from the state’s A&M University in 1980, in German and journalism, having spent much of his time off campus playing solo sets in bars. For the next few years he performed at folk festivals and developed his style before, in ’86, signing with MCA and releasing the aforementioned debut disc.
By album three, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, he was extending his repertoire into blues, jazz, swing and gospel music. Standouts are I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You and a ground-breaking version of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man which turns the whole thing on its head. See also this duet by Lovett and Wynette on a TV chat show.
Released in 1992, Joshua Judges Ruth (three consecutive Old Testament books) deals with themes of religion and death plus a twist on the classic country standby of woman walks out on man – She’s Already Made Up Her Mind and She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To, plus the irresistible Family Reserve. Guesting on guitar is a personal favourite, Leo Kottke, more of whom in future blogs.
Two years on came I Love Everybody, perhaps Lovett’s strongest and certainly funniest album. It begins with Skinny Legs (live version, check out the hair) and Fat Babies, (I don’t like hippies and I don’t like cornbread and I don’t like much) followed shortly by the sinister yet hilarious Creeps Like Me. Featured briefly during the album on backing vocals is Julia Roberts, who had wed Lovett in 1993 three weeks after they met on the set of the Robert Altman film, The Player. Pressure of work meant the marriage was always under strain and it ended after less than two years, although the couple are said to remain friends. Yeah.
By now, however, it seemed Lovett’s songwriting was beginning to run out of steam and for 1998’s double effort Step Inside This House he recorded only cover versions. That said, Bears, I’ve Had Enough and If I Needed You by the great Townes van Zandt typify a strong set.
Into the noughties, and I feel that although the diligent listener will still find some diverting material, Lovett’s albums have largely lost their spark. Perhaps he feels he belongs more in movies, both as actor and musician. He has appeared in countless TV and big-screen productions but he still croons, at the age of 61, and can boast more great songs than most. Not to mention some astonishing barnets.