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The quite unexpected (it’s been ten years) but wholly welcomed (the world always needs its finest songwriters around) return of Lyle Lovett to releasing music, was a bright spot in a bleak period at the beginning of this month.

There’s a new single, 12th Of June, and an album of the same name in May. And yea verily, there will be public celebrations, metaphorical fireworks, and good people will fall on each other’s shoulders in tears of gratitude.

While we wait for the album, Wind Back Wednesday hitches up to the Lyle bandwagon on his first, and so far only, tour of Australia in 2010 - a year or so before what was a contractual obligation final album with his longtime label emerged.

(Not mentioned here: his shows were simply great, he was an absolute gentleman when enduring a post-show meet and greet with some of us devotees, and he is so tiny.)


WHILE THOSE WHO HAVE LAUDED his work for two decades might regret the fact, it is true that Lyle Lovett is not the most famous living Texan: a certain G.W. Bush would probably take that mantle ahead of many other contenders. Despite his brief tabloid fame through the even briefer marriage to actor Julia Roberts, Lovett is after all merely an entertainer, about to make his first Australian tour, not a constitutional defender of the flag or propagator of desert wars.

But Lyle Pearce Lovett, not known as a particular fan of the former governor and President (who was, incidentally, born in Connecticut to an old New England family) but known for being as fond of holy roller gospel and big band music as he was of wickedly infectious Texan swing and bluegrass, does have something all the Bushes would envy: deep roots in the often-parched soil of Texas.

Hiding behind a charming crooked smile, this man whose songs blend a rare melodic gift with wit and a whipsmart mind, has a history in the state which still thinks of itself as a world apart. A history he can measure without even stepping out of his front door.

The house in which he lives in Klein, on the outskirts of Houston, was built by his grandfather in 1911 on land owned and worked by the family since the 1840s. The house in which he was born in 1957 was “through the pasture, the next house along”. Yes, he did attend university “outside”, but it was down the road at Texas A&M and while he’s been around the world and briefly took himself to the country establishment in Nashville in the mid 1980s, Lovett has never moved away.

It’s why when this courtly, quietly elegant man sings of Texas or speaks of the Texan songwriters to whom he owes a debt and whose work took up most of the credits on his most recent album, he isn't just talking through his (stylish cowboy) hat. This was and still is his world.

"I was very close to my family growing up, my extended family,” says Lovett. “My mom was from a family of seven and my grandfather had a small vegetable farm in North Harris County here in Texas and he gave each one of his children a couple of acres to build their homes on. So when I'd come home after school I'd spend time with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. It really was like a family place. It continues to be really.”

His mother and her younger brother Calvin are the only two of that generation around -Lovett’s father died in 2000 shortly before he was make what would have been his first tour of Australia, cancelling it because “I didn't feel right about leaving my mom here by herself while I was that far from home”.

Calvin still makes “a good part of his living running cows”. Those would be the “cows” who in 2002 barged Lovett up against a fence and badly gored him. There’s some perspective for you: think paparazzi and gossip columns speculating on your marriage hurts? Try being on the pointy end of a longhorn.

The compound still has the energy of Lovett’s youth, and almost as importantly his beloved horses, and he returns there from his tours with a sense of satisfaction and undisguised comfort that isn’t that different to his childhood where “grandma and grandpa’s place really was the centre of all family activity, starting with breakfast at seven o'clock in the morning".

So where did he go wrong then? Oh sure, he’s won four Grammys, had top ten albums and been praised for “gracefully matching genuine songcraft with A-list musicianship", made films with Robert Altman and appeared in the odd high rating sitcom, but singing and acting’s not exactly farming or cow running or even, with a nod to the Bush fortune, drilling for oil. You know, proper work for a Texan.

"There are so many ways I've gone wrong,” Lovett chuckles. “People of my parents' generation were faced with choices based more on what they had to do than what they want to do. But that gave me, gave people of my generation, the chance to make those choices based on what we wanted to do rather than be strictly concerned with survival.”

There was at least a tradition of yarn spinning in the family, the kind of influence which did in the end play a big part in Lovett’s signature dry wit and sharp phrasing.

"The conversation around the breakfast table or lunch table you had to think on your feet and be ready to defend yourself at any given moment,” he recalls fondly. “There were lots of stories and lots of teasing always and lots of innuendo. You had to be thinking all the time to make it through a meal and I think that's a part of what inspired my imagination early on, learning how to stretch a tale just to be able to survive."

Growing up in the ‘60s and 70s music was a big part of any teenager's life, but what was it that said to this Klein boy that he could do this properly, seriously?

"Nothing ever really said to me ‘I can do this’ but it always said ‘I like doing this’. And that really was it for me,” he says. “Gosh, it’s still a day to day prospect isn't it? Unless I am on stage somewhere I feel like I am out of work and I'm not sure that that feeling ever goes away. But the idea of liking to play music or liking to play an instrument, liking to listen to music or trying to figure out a song off the radio, that never changes."

Lovett was pulled into his first band aged eight because he owned a guitar and an amplifier. He didn’t do much, “but standing there with it was almost good enough” and he soon talked himself into being a guitarist and then a songwriter, one who watched the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Eric Taylor and Vince Bell play in Houston and create the template for the Texan song craftsman Lovett would exemplify.

Not that Lovett sees himself in their company, despite the evidence to the contrary as younger writers, like Kasey Chambers for example, defer to his work with a sense of awe. He still sees himself lucky: lucky to still be working, lucky to still be in the same record deal he signed 25 years ago, lucky even to have been signed in the first place.

That last one is maybe the only real luck here. When Lovett came to Nashville in 1984 to shop his songs around he caught the industry at a brief time when the Nashville establishment was actually keen to break out of its formula, to bring in artists like Lovett and Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. That window closed fairly quickly but when it did Lyle Lovett was already inside.

"That's just the way I see it. I went at a time when Nashville was really looking for what was next as the big commercial success of the urban cowboy phase had finally tapered off completely. Had I gone to Nashville at another time I might not have gotten a second meeting but it happened to be good timing."

Timing, yes, but he didn’t disappear when the times changed. Lovett has been able to retain an individual style and personal touch rather than make the corporate album which might have propelled him into the league of a Tim McGraw or Keith Urban. He didn’t have to wear the big belt buckle and tight jeans because that’s what was selling for Yoakam or do the production line songwriting with Music Row professional writers.

That’s why his songs are a reflection of his view of the world, not a view from the office window.

"I hope so but you know there is not as much conscious choice in the history of my recordings as there has been just writing the only way I know how,” he says, deflecting any praise once again.

“That’s why to be mentioned in the company [of the storied Texan songwriters] is an honour because listening to their songs showed me what a song could be, defined what a song was.

“And the kinds of things that they wrote about people are full of characters who could be characters in a novel or short story. That narrative quality, that's what really appealed to me when I first heard Guy Clark songs."

That's all true but as self-deprecating as he is, Lyle Lovett can't get away without mention of the fact he fits the bill too. Always did. You can learn something about the way people behave, in private as much as in public, listening to a Lyle Lovett song.

“I don’t think I know how people work any better but I'm not afraid to talk about some of the things that maybe other folks don't talk about,” he will concede. “None of my songs are meant to say I understand this better than you do so listen up. It's really just a matter of saying I know how this works, I know what you’re thinking, so let's be honest with one another."


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