Lyle Lovett plays Aspen’s Wheeler
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” “All Downhill,” from 2007’s “It’s Not Big It’s Large,” spotlights Lyle Lovett’s sense of dark humor. The Texas singer-songwriter details how good he’s had it ” “a good horse,” “a beautiful girlfriend,” a benevolent God ” before deftly switching gears to express a worry: “It could be all downhill from here.”
It is classic Lovett: a mixing of dark and light, earnest and joking. Lovett’s vocal tone doesn’t shift as the lyrics turn, nor does his Large Band move out of the song’s upbeat Texas-swing tempo, giving the song the deadpan feel that is a huge part of Lovett’s appeal.
“All Downhill” touches on another essential facet of Lovett. In the last verse, returning to basking in the sunshine that is his real life, he name-checks the three singer-songwriters ” fellow Texans Joe Ely and Guy Clark, plus Indiana-born John Hiatt ” who have often accompanied him on songwriter-in-the-round tours. Being able to tour in such company is, as the song has it, nothing but inexplicable great fortune: “Good luck you can’t buy it,” sings Lovett in the verse’s opening. When he gets to his singing-songwriting buddies, he elongates the names, savoring the idea that he gets to appear on-stage with them.
There is plenty to like about Lovett: the comedian’s timing, the iconic hair, the politeness, the artistic perfectionism that does away with the concept of filler songs on an album. (For Aspenites, there is the added factor of his palpable affection for their town.) And not to be overlooked is Lovett’s respect, near reverence, for his contemporaries, and those singer-songwriters who have come before him.
“The thing is, I’m just a fan, a music fan,” said the 51-year-old from his ranch near Klein, the southeast Texas community where he was raised and still lives, where his family roots go back to the 19th century. “That’s what made me want to perform in the first place. It’s so exciting when you’re a fan, and you meet them, then get to work with them. Which I get to do frequently.”
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While Lovett tours often with musicians he admires, he rarely writes with them. Songs written by Lovett in collaboration with other writers are rare, which Lovett chalks up to being so far removed from the Nashville scene, and to never having developed the habit of teaming up to write songs. (Another perspective: Lovett’s songs are so idiosyncratic as to resist the group approach.)
But two songs that were collaborations ” “This Old Porch,” from his self-titled 1986 debut, and “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” from 1996’s “The Road to Ensenada” ” are among those that Lovett is most proud of. (The first was written with Robert Earl Keen, Lovett’s next-door neighbor during their days at Texas A the second by Willis Alan Ramsey, whom Lovett has identified as a primary influence: “I got tennis shoes like his. I wanted to be Willis Alan Ramsey,” Lovett has said.)
“Those came out of a friendship,” Lovett said. “They wouldn’t exist without the relationship with another person. That’s what makes those songs stand out.”
Lovett adds to the list “You Were Always There,” from 2003’s “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” co-written by his regular bassist, Viktor Krauss.
The depth of Lovett’s respect for other songwriters, especially of the Texas breed, was evident on “Step Inside This House.” That 1998 album was a two-disc homage to the Texas writers ” with an emphasis on Steven Fromholz, and two deceased musicians, Townes Van Zandt and Walter Hyatt ” who inspired Lovett.
“That album was really a way of explaining where my early influences came from,” Lovett said.
Lovett has a common nostalgia for the formative days. Mostly he seems to listen to the music of old friends. Or made by the offspring of old friends: Two younger musicians he admires are Warren and Marshall Hood, sons of the late Texas player Champ Hood.
“I hear a lot of good music by young people,” he said. “But I don’t know if, as an adult, it strikes you in the same way. I love keeping up with the music my friends are doing: Shawn Colvin, Robert Earl Keen.”
The habit of sticking with his friends extends beyond his fellow songwriters. He has used the same producer, Billy Williams, since the 1980s. When Lovett appears Saturday, at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, his quartet will include cellist John Hagen, with whom he has been playing since 1979, and bassist Krauss and electric guitarist Mitch Watkins, both more recent additions to Lovett’s stable of musicians. (Another frequent sideman has been mandolinist Sam Bush, who played Belly Up Aspen this past week. Playing mandolin in the current quartet is Keith Sewell.)
Lovett is generous in giving his musicians a prominent voice. The songs on “It’s Not Big It’s Large,” his latest album, didn’t cry out for expansive arrangements. But it was time for the Large Band to be spotlighted on an album.
“It had been several years since the horn and vocal section had been featured. It was time to feature them again,” said Lovett, noting that he tours regularly with the Large Band. And whichever form the band takes, the players get their time center-stage.
“That’s always part of the show, to highlight the people on-stage with me,” Lovett said. “The thought I hold in my mind is, I want the audience to feel they know everyone on-stage, that everyone has their own identity on-stage.”
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