Cowboy at Heart
Known the world over for his trademark sound, soulful lyrics and unique personality, Klein native LYLE LOVETT sits down for a few minutes with WARNER ROBERTS to talk about his life, his art and where it all began.
“I was always interested in music, all kinds of music. I listened to all the Texas singer/songwriters, like Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steven Fromholz and BW Stephenson. I was very curious about their songs and what they had to say; that intrigued me as much as the music itself.”
Enjoying music from a young age, Lovett also got started on his professional career early. “I was about 17 when I got my first job at the Mariner Restaurant out on F.M. 1960. I played clubs all over Houston and sometimes in Austin, always trying to figure out where to play next.”
Cutting his chops in bars and music joints, Lovett finally got his first big break. “When I finally went to Nashville to record, I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “What I discovered is that the people there are very warm and willing to help. Everyone is genuinely supportive.”
Thankfully, the music circuit was like an extended family. “I’d been playing clubs for 10 years before I cut my first record,” he reveals. “One of my all-time favorite song-writing heroes, the late Guy Clark, passed my tapes around Nashville. I hadn’t even met him. Here someone was promoting me, and I didn’t even know him.”
It was in 1986 that Lovett signed with MCA/Curb and released his first album, Lyle Lovett, which received rave reviews. Three of its singles, “Farther Down the Line,” “Why I Don’t Know” and “Give Back My Heart” reached the Country Top 40, and “Cowboy Man” reached the Top 10. While first classified as a country singer, the label didn’t seem to fit as Lovett began to incorporate all the different styles of music he had loved since childhood into his work.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Lovett has won four Grammy Awards, including Best Country Album (1996 for The Road to Ensenada), Best Country Duo/Group with Vocal (1994 for “Blues for Dixie” with Asleep at the Wheel), Best Pop Vocal Collaboration, (1994 for “Funny How Time Slips Away” with Al Green) and Best Country Male Vocal (1989 for “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band”). Lovett was honored recently by the Austin Film Society with the Texas Film Hall of Fame Award for music and film. Additionally, he was given an Esky in Esquire’s 2006 Esky Music Awards (April 2006). “The secret of Lyle Lovett’s endurance comes down to the three C’s: class, charisma and consistency” articulates Esquire. “In the studio and on stage with his giant orchestra, he’s spent two decades gracefully matching genuine songcraft with A-list musicianship.”
Born the only child of William Pearce Lovett and Bernell Klein Lovett, Lyle Lovett grew up on the family farm in Klein Ð which was named for his grandfather Adam Klein, a Bavarian weaver.
“It was my grandfather who gave his seven children a couple of acres a piece,” he says. “We all lived on the same property; and we’d congregate over at my grandma’s house because she always had something good to eat. It was really like a big family gathering all the time with me, mother and dad, aunts and uncles and 12 first cousins.”
Obviously, times have changed since his childhood, but the family continues to have a strong bond with the area. (Still a highly rural part of Houston, Klein is also one of the city’s fastest growing suburbs.) “Most everybody has scattered,” he reveals. “I still live there, my mom and one of my uncles, Calvin Klein, and his wife, Sheila, live there.”
“It was my mom who would drive downtown to the Exxon Building to work, drive home to Klein, pick me up and take me over to H&H Music for guitar lessons,” he says. “That’s how determined she was that I would have opportunities she never had.”
“Compared to how hard my mom and dad worked, I didn’t have any struggles,” he says of his life now. “I knew I wanted to write the best songs I could and sing as well as I could, and I just kept at it. I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t worked; I never made a back-up plan. I’m so privileged to be able to do what I love to do. I’ll always be eternally grateful and give thanks to the people who support me.”
“My mother took me to my first television show on Channel 13 to ‘Kitirik’s Tree House’ on my 5th birthday,” he says. “I did a Stripe Toothpaste commercial with Kitirik and got to take a lot of toothpaste home. That was a big deal!”
Beyond bright smiles, Lovett landed a role in the 1983 Mickey Rooney made-for-television movie, “Bill: On His Own.” Director Robert Altman recognized the uniqueness of Lovett in the early ’90s and cast him as a detective in the film, “The Player.” So pleased with the results of his efforts, Altman cast him in five other movies, “Short Cuts,” “Ready to Wear,” “Cookie’s Fortune,” “Prêt-à-Porter” and “Dr. T and the Women.” Other movies he has acted in are “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “The Opposite of Sex, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The New Guy.”
Unlike many musician-turned-movie-stars, he has talent in many different arenas — but he is sticking to singing/songwriting. “I didn’t audition for any of those,” he says of the movies in which he’s appeared, “but if something comes along and somebody calls me, maybe.”
Expanding his horizons and creating lifelong fans in his Aggie classmates, Lovett continued to focus on his music while earning a degree in journalism and German from Texas A&M University. “There was so much German spoken at home, I thought I’d find out what everybody was saying,” he says. “I worked on the school paper, and I, like everybody, was trying to interview any celebrity that came into town.” As a graduate student, he traveled to Germany to study and continued to write and play while he was in Europe.
Lovett met his fiancée of four years, April, at an Aggie event nearly 10 years ago. For the past eight years, April has been handling many of the jobs necessary to keep Lovett organized. (Of course, that is in addition to his manager in Nashville and his press agent and publicity staff.) “I’m so happy to have April with me on every tour,” he says. “She makes it so much easier to go out on the road.” April explains their long engagement in a way that only a truly supportive partner can. “Working out the wedding plans is a bit of a challenge with our full schedules,” she says.
They make a handsome couple. Lovett is tall, thin, very interestingly good looking, with a sexy twinkle in his eye and a great laugh. Svelte as a model and just as striking, April is sleek. Beyond their appearances, these Texas natives complement each other well and are politely proper and charming.
Thankfully, Lovett has fully recovered from an accident he had with a bull four years ago. Even after experiencing a badly broken leg (although not due to a bike), Lovett continues to possess a love of motorcycles. A boy at heart, he is known locally for the cycle shop he owned in town. “I grew up riding like my dad,” he says. “I had a mini bike when I was 10. Richard Sanders, owner of Cycle Shack, gave me my first summer job, and I’d ride the bus from downtown almost to Sugar Land. I eventually bought Richard’s shop, changed the name to Lyle Lovett’s Motor Sports, and sold it recently. I had a lot of fun with it. Still have my dad’s Road King Harley, a Yamaha dirt bike and a BMW street bike.”
Lovett is hard at work trying to finish writing songs to record by the end of the year, hoping to release an album early next year. He hasn’t named the album yet. “No, not yet,” he says. “Can’t name it, till I see what I’ve got.”
Although he doesn’t know exactly how many songs he’s written, the number is nearing 100. “I write what is important to me,” he says about his favorite song. “Things that are inspirational to me. It would be too hard to single out one.” But his fiancée adds that he does have a tune that’s always present at his concerts. “I think a constant in each show is ‘If I Had a Boat,'” she says.
Lovett goes on tour this month with the 17-piece Large Band. That means gearing up two 18 wheelers and three big buses for himself, crew and equipment. “When I go out with the Large Band, we sometimes perform five or six nights a week, travel at night and sleep on the bus,” Lovett says. “And, we do that for 10 or 12 weeks. It’s tough. Not hard physically, but you get a little tired. It’s so great to have April with me.”
With so many performances under his belt, it’s hard for him to pick out one as the most memorable. “I have to say that every performance is so special,” Lovett says. “I’m always hopeful, but I always feel a little insecure. Especially if it’s a new show, and I’m working it out. It’s different every tour, and there’s a good nervous feeling about it.” He thinks for a minute and continues, “I was singing background vocal with Willie Nelson one night in Los Angeles. After the song was over, he turned, took his guitar off and handed it to me. Willie let me play his guitar. That was special!”