Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Offbeat Bandleader

By Chris Herrington

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Fifteen years into his recording career, Lyle Lovett has emerged as one of the most consistent forces in popular music, a genre-hopping singer-songwriter whose modest celebrity and growing body of work have resulted in a sizable cult following. Lovett is the kind of established semi-star who can fill big halls with little-to-no radio play.

It's odd to remember now that Lovett came of age, along with Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, Clint Black, Steve Earle, and K.D. Lang, during country music's late-Eighties neotraditionalist movement. It was apparent from the beginning that Lovett, much like Lang and Earle, wouldn't last as a feature attraction amid the myriad Nashville hat acts then replacing countrypolitan slickness with a different sort of urban cowboy sound, but it was nice to see Lovett, with his Eraserhead look and quirky style, charting country singles while it lasted. Now, it's easier to see the Houston-raised, Texas A&M-educated Lovett as part of an older, more commercially marginal tradition of Texas singer-songwriters that includes Guy Clark, the late Townes Van Zandt, the Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely), and countless others. It's an ancestry that Lovett himself embraced on Step Inside This House, his 1998 double set of covers of songs by lesser-known Texas songwriters.

But there's a reason why Lovett has reached a larger pop audience than any of the songwriters he covers on Step Inside This House. Despite his considerable talents, there's a nagging underside to Lovett's popularity: He's urbane, "smart," and too, too tasteful, and fronting his large band, where the jazz tinges signify nothing so much as a middlebrow notion of class, he is, at his worst, an American roots version of Sting -- the very model of a comfortable, reassuring, "adult" alternative.

And reviewing his catalogue, I'm struck by how underrated Lovett is as a misogynist. An unfortunate distaste for the opposite sex is a component that subtly runs through his work, perhaps most strongly on his much-loved sophomore disc, Pontiac. On that record, women are murdered ("L.A. County"), beaten up ("Black and Blue"), depicted as the stereotypical ball and chain ("She's No Lady"), and cynically labeled gold-diggers ("M-O-N-E-Y"). And on the jaunty, album-closing "She's Hot To Go," the punchline is as sour and pathetic as can be: The slut is ugly! This kind of thing may be a common trope in country music, something that Lovett is no doubt aware of and probably consciously plays with, but the juxtaposition of casual misogyny with Lovett's musical urbanity somehow makes it less forgivable anyway, in much the same manner that the bone-deep callousness of a crooner like Frank Sinatra bothers me much more than that of rapper Jay-Z, to choose a couple of vocal heroes from different eras.

Lovett is most respected for his eccentric, offbeat songcraft, and though he's no match for someone like Randy Newman (with whom he's often compared), he has managed to knock off a couple of gems per album over the course of his six collections of original songs. In fact, Lovett's just the kind of sporadically brilliant songwriter who's begging for a good best of, but the problem, of course, is that my song list probably wouldn't look much like yours.

Indeed, Lovett's latest collection, Live in Texas, a de facto best of, contains none of the songs that I'd tag as his finest moments. Missing is "God Will," from his eponymous debut, a tough, cold, calculated, would-be country classic in which the song's narrator explains to an unfaithful lover, "Who keeps on saying that he still wants you when you're through running around? God does, but I don't. God will, but I won't, and that's the difference between God and me." Also left out are the title-says-it-all double shot of the extended, neotrad joke "I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You" and the inspirational-by-Lovett-standards "She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To." And while the lovely "Nobody Knows Me" is included, I miss its companion piece from Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, "If You Were To Wake Up," which gives that album a double dose of lost-love songs far more fair-minded, in content and tone, than what came before. And then there's my favorite Lovett song, "They Don't Like Me," from his most under-valued album, I Love Everybody. The only song in Lovett's oeuvre that is worthy of Newman, it concerns the plight of a man who doesn't get along with his relatives but who is perfectly content to coast along on the veneer of politeness.

With Step Inside This House and Live in Texas marking time between 1996's The Road to Ensenada and his next new project, it's been almost five years since Lovett has released an album of new, original songs, a long time for a performer better known for his compositional skills than his interpretive aplomb. But with a deep back catalogue to draw from, that won't be much of an issue for the concert crowd. And the good news is that Live in Texas is as solid a listen as any of his studio records, lending the impression that Lovett's particular mix of folk, country, gospel, jazz, and soul may well improve on the stage.


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