30 years since first album, Lyle Lovett is Americana success story


Lyle Lovett and His Large Band

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Tickets: $39.50-$89.50; 713-315-2525, ticketmaster.com

The songs on "Lyle Lovett" include characters and situations relatable beyond their narratives. In his case, they sometimes referenced the uncertainty and persistence of an artist trying to get his songs heard as he was approaching 30. Tim Leatherwood, owner of Anderson Fair, remembers an early Lovett gig at the singer-songwriter-friendly club when about six people showed up. He persuaded Lovett to play anyway.

"Maybe it didn't seem like it happened fast to him, but to us, it was like one night he was here and the next he was on the couch with Johnny Carson, getting up and playing the songs we'd heard," Leatherwood says.

Legendary country producer Tony Brown, who worked with Lovett early in the musician's career, said the debut album "showed his eclectic side but also his ability to write hits. I think it's a crown jewel in his work. And it doesn't sound dated at all. I listen to things from 1979, and they sound like they were made in 1979. This record sounds timeless."

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Lyle Lovett and His Large Band play Wednesday at the Hobby Center. A few songs from that album always find their way onto the set list, tracing a line back to the start of a career that, in its earliest days, tracked a circuitous course from Klein to College Station to Houston to Luxembourg to Arizona to Nashville.

And then back to Texas again.

COLLEGE STATION, 1978

Lovett's time in College Station has been written about at length.

He studied journalism and German at Texas A&M University and graduated in 1980, but not before he'd become embedded in the local music scene. Of greatest lore is the friendship he forged there with songwriter Robert Earl Keen. Lovett would park his bike at Keen's house by the campus and admire the informal bluegrass sessions Keen led from his porch.

Their friendship yielded "This Old Porch," a song both men have recorded, Lovett on his first album.

He also wrote for the school's newspaper, The Batalion, and booked shows at the Basement Coffeehouse. An added benefit to the latter: He got to open for the acts he scheduled.

During that time, Lovett came to Houston to interview songwriter Don Sanders, who tipped him off to Anderson Fair, the epicenter of Houston's singer-songwriter scene. There he saw, met and befriended other writers, including Nanci Griffith and Eric Taylor, while also admiring the work of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, two figureheads among songwriters from Texas.

"He knew he had a lot to learn," Taylor says. "But he was one of those guys who learned it fast and then got on with it."

Lovett acknowledges insecurity about his early original songs, but even then he took the lessons from his predecessors and spun them into something new. A playing-cards visual and the line "but if the night didn't lie in the darkness, then the daylight would be hard to find" showed clear debt to Van Zandt, who worked distinctively with cards and light/dark contrasts. But Lovett's "If I Were the Man You Wanted" had a dark humor to it, a classic country refrain that lent itself to singing along despite a punch line after the title: "I would not be the man that I am."

From Clark he picked up a fearlessness about casting people he knew in songs.

"What struck me about Guy's work is he has these characters, and they seem like real people," Lovett says. "And he called them by name. I took these sorts of qualities as permission to do something that way. 'Guy does it, so it must be OK.' "

He had some songs, and he had welcoming stages across Texas. But Lovett wanted to take a bigger swing.

LUXEMBOURG

Lovett stumbled onto an undesirable gig at a monthlong music festival in the small European nation.

He'd arrived in Europe two months earlier to study German at the Goethe-Institut. Program completed, Lovett spent four weeks riding a rail pass with his suitcase and guitar. He planned to play an annual monthlong music festival in Luxembourg for his airfare home, a gig booked by a graphic-designer friend whose love of the American West prompted him to rebrand himself "Buffalo Wayne." "My job was to play the set changes," Lovett says. "I was in front of the stage, not even on the stage. Nobody cared." Worse, Buffalo Wayne got fired from the event because a poster he designed offended a major sponsor, so Lovett was left in Luxembourg with no connections and the frightening possibility that he wouldn't get paid, money he was counting on to get home. But another act at the festival had taken a liking to his songs. J. David Sloan and the Rogues offered Lovett the opportunity to not only play during their set but to accompany him. And Sloan assured the songwriter he'd get paid. "That was the first time I'd really played with a band and heard my songs like that," Lovett says. "It was quite a different experience. "Lovett got his plane ticket home and also an offer: Should he find himself in Phoenix, he had a day of free studio time and musicians who wanted to work with him.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.

Small gigs had fed Lovett material for new songs. "Farther Down the Line" was created out of necessity.

Lovett was driving home from a Christmas Eve gig at a steakhouse in Austin, having mixed originals and covers, when he thought about the effect playing Clark's "Heartbroke" had on the crowd. "I thought, 'I wish I had more of my own songs that people could dance to,' " he says now. He ended up with "Farther Down the Line," a rodeo song equal parts Bob Dylan and Bob Wills. "Closing Time" - to date one of his best and most beautiful songs - also was culled from a tough early gig, though this time it wasn't his. Lovett saw Taylor play in College Station, and as the night moved on, the crowd trickled out. "I packed up my PA and went home and put it in my apartment, and it was so quiet," he says. "I thought, 'God, this is too still.' That's where the first line comes from. But during Eric's set, you could tell the club was more concerned with getting ready for the next day. They were putting up chairs. That never would have happened at Anderson Fair. But it stuck with me."

Months after meeting J. David Sloan and the Rogues in Luxembourg, Lovett arrived in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Ariz., where Sloan and his band were mainstays at a club called Mr. Lucky's. The musical relationship was quick to happen, and they soon had a high-quality, four-song demo to push.

Lovett's truck began the long haul from Scottsdale to Houston, Houston to Nashville, Nashville to Houston, Houston to Scottsdale. By October 1984, Lovett, with Sloan and the Rogues, had recorded 18 songs at Chaton Recordings in Arizona. Billy Williams, the Rogues' lead guitarist, was crucial in producing those recordings and also arranging the horns.

One rep at a major label in Los Angeles liked what he heard, but, Lovett says, "He told me, 'If you can write like this, you can write hit songs. Ever listen to the radio?' "I took it as encouragement."

NASHVILLE - Tony Brown

A family friend worked at a Nashville publishing company, and it happened to be the company that represented Clark. Lovett had never met Clark but hoped the friend could put his demo in the songwriter's hands.

Unbeknownst to him, Clark got the tape, admired it and began passing it around Nashville. "I can't take credit for finding him," says producer Brown. "Guy Clark found him. Guy was just pitching a friend."

By the time MCA/Curb signed him, Lovett's hopes had started to fade after monthly drives from Houston to Nashville and nights spent on friends' couches.

"I felt as though I was getting a late start," he says. "Artists have these albums come out at 20 or 21. In 1986, I was 28."

The invisible man should have been easy to notice. He favored neither rhinestone-studded duds nor jeans, instead sporting dark suits. His hair was tall.

"He didn't look like anybody else, he didn't dress like anybody else," Brown says. "He walked into a room and the temperature changed. Like Cash."

Others wanted to meddle with the songs Lovett made with Sloan and the Rogues, but Brown heard a "demo" that hardly qualified as a demo at all. He certainly didn't want to mess with the integrity of the songs.

"I was at MCA 25 years, and I worked on a lot of hit records," he says. "I knew the drill: A commercial piece of music needed to be three minutes, not 3:30. You had to get to the hook in 20 seconds, (expletive) like that. Lyle was not that kind of artist. And nobody really had the nerve to tell him what to do anyway." A vocal by Rosanne Cash and a guitar part by Vince Gill were added to "You Can't Resist It." But for the most part, Brown wanted to leave the album alone.

"Here's a funny story about a guitar lick," the producer says. "Lyle plays his own guitar. He has to play on the record because the way he hammers on the strings is particular to him, and the drummer will play off that. On one song, he hit a string, and it buzzed. Well, we went in and fixed it. And I told him. He said he was sorry he made that little mistake. And he listened to it and said, 'Well, Tony, it sounds better. But I don't like it because I know we changed it.'

"I learned early how to roll with artists. (Producer) Jimmy Bowen told me 99 percent of the time the artist is right. Remember, it's their record, not yours, so keep your bull (expletive) to yourself."

Brown sensed from the start Lovett was going to be a difficult fit on country radio. He steered promotions and publicity toward MCA's Los Angeles offices early on, knowing mainstream country radio would be a difficult dance. Doing so introduced Lovett to listeners who might not otherwise have found his singular sound.

"He's proof that if you have a No. 1 record, then you have an experience. If you have an audience, then you have a career," Brown says. "He's earned his audience and his career. It's about artistry with Lyle."

Lovett to listeners who might not otherwise have found his singular sound.

"He's proof that if you have a No. 1 record, then you have an experience. If you have an audience, then you have a career," Brown says. "He's earned his audience and his career. It's about artistry with Lyle."

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