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This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

Lyle Lovett: Genre Bender

Although he has been lumped into the country genre,

guitarist and singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett does more genre-bending

in the course of one of his two-hour shows than 99 percent of Nashville’s

current crop of so-called "country" artists.

Blues singer Francine Reed performs on Lovett’s recent album, "Live

In Texas," singing "Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues," and

the rendering is fabulous. On another of his recent albums, "Step

Inside This House," Lovett pays tribute to the great Texas songwriters

who have been influential, among them Michael Martin Murphy, Guy Clark,

and the late Townes Van Zandt and Walter Hyatt.

Lovett’s current album, "Live In Texas," was recorded in performance

with his Large Band, a 17-piece ensemble. And for him, live recording

is key. "No matter how happy you are with a studio track, playing

live always changes the song. One of the reasons this project was

so gratifying to me is because these performances feel more familiar

to me than the studio versions of the songs. This is a document of

what we’ve been doing and what has happened to these songs," says

Lovett.

Lovett appears with his Large Band at McCarter Theater on Friday,

November 12. The appearance, originally a single 8 p.m. show which

was a fast sellout, has been augmented with a late, 10:45 p.m. show

for which tickets were still available at press time.

Lovett’s recording career began in 1986, and the 14 tracks of the

current "Live In Texas" span the gamut of these years. Lovett’s

1988 album, "Pontiac," is a bluesy record, and his others,

including his Grammy winning albums, "Road To Ensenada" (1996,

Best Country Album) and "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band" (1989,

Best Male Vocal), do a great job of expanding the boundaries of contemporary

country music. By including so many gospel, blues, folk, and pop-influenced

originals on his albums, Lovett broke new ground, opening the way

for blues and folk-oriented acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter and the

Dixie Chicks to be regarded as "country" musicians.

"There’s a real continuity with the people in the band and with

the people I have around me in the studio," Lovett says of "Live

In Texas." Like a modern-day Duke Ellington orchestra, Lovett

and his big band are a team of seasoned, well-rehearsed, versatile

musicians. (Unlike Ellington, Lovett and band probably command performance

fees five or six times greater than Ellington’s band ever got in his

lifetime.) Musicians on the latest album, who will share the stage

at McCarter Theater, will include keyboardist Matt Rollings, guitarist

Ray Herndon, percussionist James Gilmer, cellist John Hagen, bassist

Viktor Krauss, and drummer Dan Tomlinson.

"These guys all have careers of their own, and I’m just lucky

that they’ve agreed to play with me for all this time," says Lovett.

"It means a lot to me to have that continuity over the years."

Lovett was born in 1957 in Klein, Texas, a town named after his great

grandfather, a Bavarian weaver named Adam Klein. Lovett was raised

on his family’s horse ranch in this suburb of Houston. While in college

at Texas A&M University, Lovett began to ply his trade, covering the

songs of his favorite Texas singer-songwriters in basket houses in

Houston and Austin. He began writing songs in the late 1970s at the

same time he was majoring in journalism and German. In graduate school,

he traveled to Germany, where he continued to study, write songs,

and perform a bit. At this point, realizing that his voice would never

carry him through Merle Haggard songs, he concentrated on writing

and performing his own material.

Back home in Austin after a few years overseas, he began to hang out

with other young songwriters, including Vince Bell, Eric Taylor, and

Nanci Griffith. He headed for Nashville in 1984 with a demo tape and

a plan to try to get a publishing company interested in having other

singers record his songs. Instead, he wound up with a recording contract

of his own with Curb/MCA Records, the company that released his self-titled

debut in 1986.

Given that Lovett was a journalism major in college

and that he probably makes a habit of reading the papers when he’s

on tour, some might be surprised that he was not granting any interviews

this tour. On the other hand, he knows the media glare from his highly

publicized marriage to actress Julia Roberts and from his own acting

career. And then again, if one had an idea of the sheer numbers of

interview requests he regularly receives — on tour or off the

road — perhaps there’s a method to his madness. In order words,

if he can’t make time to do all the interviews, then perhaps he reasons

that he shouldn’t do any.

At the last Lovett show I attended, at the Count Basie Theater in

Red Bank several summers ago, the audience included Bruce Springsteen

and Jon Bon Jovi. Various members of the audience yelled out their

song requests to Lovett and band, and Lovett, as talented a comedian

as he is a guitarist, would shoot back with witty one-liners.

The audience at Lovett’s two shows at McCarter on Friday night should

be prepared for an eclectic program of American music that includes

gospel, blues, traditional folk, and Texas swing-jazz along the lines

of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and yes, a few country tunes.

One critic described the amalgamation of styles that Lovett and his

large band traverse in concert as "razor-sharp music as good as

roots pop gets." And that’s not terribly far from the truth.

— Richard J. Skelly

Lyle Lovett, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. $35 to $50. Friday, November 12, at 8 and 10:45 p.m.


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