Lyle Lovett takes nothing for granted on "Natural Forces" (or anywhere else)
By Brian Baker, November 2009
To say that Lyle Lovett has a great new album in "Natural Forces" is a newsflash akin to announcing that oxygen is now available for mass consumption at no charge. Lovett's musical quality is as automatic as a politician's promise and infinitely more trustworthy, which might lead one to believe that, at a certain level, the Texas singer/songwriter has become slightly jaded by the consistent accolades thrown his way. One would be very mistaken.
"After years of making records, I feel so, so lucky to be able to do something I like to do," says Lovett from the comfort of his bus on his current tour. "Playing music is something I still do for fun, and it's really fun to have a new record because it gives you something to talk about and a reason to go out on the road."
Lovett makes it crystal clear that he doesn't take one moment for granted in his career, nearly a quarter century between his amazing 1986 self-titled debut and his freshly released "Natural Forces," featuring a handful of originals and a choice selection of Lovett's favorite Texas songwriters. In fact, a suggestion that those songwriters must be thrilled to have Lovett cover their work elicits an interesting glimpse into how his life in song began.
"Oh, no, I feel lucky to have been able to learn those songs; it's a powerful thing to be able to sit down with the guy that wrote the song and get them to teach it to you," says Lovett in all humility. "These songwriters are the people I would go and listen to. Don Sanders (writer of Bayou Song on "Natural Forces") is a wonderful singer/songwriter; I had done an interview with him for the school paper at Texas A&M. He was coming up to do a show, and I got to do an advance piece on him. I'll never forget how generous he was with me. I met him at the IHOP on Memorial Drive outside of Houston, and we sat there for three hours, and I just kept changing cassettes, and he was just really nice. He invited me to his next gig and the first song I heard him play was Pancho and Lefty. And I knew about Townes (Van Zandt), and all that, seeing those dots connected in that way, really piqued my interest, and I just really tried to learn about it."
Lovett is just as quick to credit his shifting but always telepathically brilliant Large Band for the success he has enjoyed. In a career that has produced 14 albums, Lovett has found a failsafe method of assembling a set list for each tour.
Lyle Lovett performs
"I always try to put a show together that works for the band we've put together," says Lovett. "My main objective in putting a set together is for the audience to feel it's gotten to know everybody onstage, and everybody's gotten to step out a little bit."
After so many albums and with so many styles represented in his catalog, it stands to reason that Lovett might be getting a little restless in his creative life. And the number of covers of Texas songwriters on "Natural Forces" - a slight return to the all-covers concept of 1998's "Step Inside This House" - could indicate that Lovett is becoming less enamored of his own songwriting voice and more attracted to the output of songwriters he has always treasured on a personal basis. Lovett happily clarifies that he is still vitally interested in telling his own stories, but just as interested in exploring as many musical avenues as possible.
"These are songs that I've always loved and played," he says. "Any of these songs could have been on 'Step Inside This House;' I didn't learn any of these songs for this record. They've been a part of my music since I was 20, and these are songwriters that define what that was about for me. There's no end to the things you can learn from the people you get to associate with. The thing I enjoy most about playing music is getting to associate with such extremely talented and capable musicians, professionals that give you 100 percent of their talent and ability every time you go in the studio with them or step on stage with them. That's the heart of it for me. Just getting to play music in whatever form and getting to experience that with what basically amounts to fantasy camp kind of band. It's just uplifting."
By way of example, Lovett references his recent circuits on songwriter-in-the-round tours with Guy Clark, Joe Ely and John Hiatt as a particularly potent influence on his own subsequent work.
"Just getting to hang out with those guys and go out on the road with them for a couple weeks at a time and to listen to them every night, it's just inspiring," says Lovett with real affection. "It makes you want to go back to your hotel room or the bus and play your guitar and try to write something that would be worthy to play for those guys. That's the joy of it. The next cool thing that I get to do, I don't even know what it's going to be. Those are the kind of possibilities that doing this has to offer. Knowing that something fun will happen is a great thing to look forward to."
Perhaps the most revealing statement Lovett offers has nothing to do with his music, which ultimately means it has everything to do with his music. He considers the question of what sparks his passion beyond his musical endeavors for almost a nanosecond.
"Oh, gosh, you know, everything," he says. "When your whole life is oriented toward doing things because you like to do it not because you have to do it...I'm really lucky that my job is doing something I like to do. I like so many things. My family's been involved with horses for so many years, In these last 10 years, I've been doing more in the way of going to horse shows and competing myself a little bit. I don't play golf or any of those kinds of hobbies, but I do enjoy getting to ride; there's something about walking into the show pen on your horse and testing yourself, that personal challenge, that's really fun."
Which leads to a logical question; concerning song references, Lyle Lovett is to "pony" as Bruce Springsteen is to "factory," so is there a pony on every album?
"Wow, that's a really good question," says Lovett. "There does seem to be, in one form or another, doesn't there?"
Whether the subject is ponies or lost love or cowboy hats or Texas or church, Lovett has masterfully transcended genres from the very start, folding country, pop, folk, jazz and swing into a sonic concoction that has been improbably appealing to fans of every possible persuasion. He laughs at the suggestion that he's on the verge of becoming a category himself ("A very teeny, tiny category..."), recalling an anecdote from his earliest days at MCA, when label head Tony Brown was his biggest champion.
"Tony Brown was quotable and always entertaining, and at one point, I was playing him songs that I wanted to record for the album we were doing, and he said, 'You may not cross over, but you may cross under,'" says Lovett with a laugh. "So that's what I'm trying to do. I'm just out here trying to cross under."