Lyle speaks! To Stewy! | AspenTimes.com
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Lyle speaks! To Stewy!

Stewart Oksenhorn

After we exchange pleasantries, I jump in with my first, long-awaited question to Lyle Lovett. It’s something about the tradition of the Texas songwriter, and what Lyle thinks may be behind that deep, storied tradition.Lyle laughs. “Oh, this is a real interview.”Of course it’s a real interview. After six years; probably 75 phone calls; shameless pleas with managers, publicists, promoters and personal assistants; face-to-face requests to the man himself; and several newspaper articles documenting the chase, I’ve finally got it: Lyle is on the phone, ready to talk. I’m not about to do a five-minute “So-how-come-you-like-Aspen-so-much-I-bet-you-can’t-wait-to-play-with-John-Hiatt-When’s-your-next-album- coming-out-see-ya-and-can-you-get-me-some-tickets?” quickie.No, this is as real an interview as I’m ever going to do. After hearing the voice mail from Lyle himself – left Wednesday morning, Feb. 21, at 9:16 a.m., MST – I got a glass of water, lined up several pens, two tablets of paper. I even made some notes. I let out six years of baited breath, and dove in. — When Lyle Lovett began “making up songs,” as he calls it, and performing them in the clubs around his native Texas, he was hardly aware that he was joining a great tradition. Instead, Lovett was simply tuned in to the music surrounding him, which turned out to be the work of the Texas songwriters: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willis Alan Ramsey, Steve Fromholz.”It was very much what was going on in the clubs around Texas,” said Lovett, who frequented Houston-area clubs in his late high school years, and began performing while studying journalism at Texas A&M in College Station. “I went around and saw these people sing and play. And it seemed real to me – it didn’t seem like commercial music, but an honest expression.”I didn’t think about it from a standpoint of it being Texas. It wasn’t like I decided to get into Texas music because it was from Texas. That’s just what was going on. That’s what was accessible to me, what I listened to on the radio. That more mainstream music seemed less accessible.”Intentional or not, Lovett has fully embraced and become part of the tradition that runs back to Leadbelly and Lightning Hopkins, through Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt, and lives today in the likes of Todd Snider and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Lovett’s college buddy Robert Earl Keen, and Guy Clark and Joe Ely, both of whom will join Lovett and Indiana-native John Hiatt at the Spirit of Skiing Benefit Concert tonight at the St. Regis Aspen ballroom.Lovett has almost a hero’s worship for the songwriters whose work inspired him. Lovett’s last studio recording, 1998’s “Step Inside This House,” features versions of songs all taken from the Texas songwriting tradition, by the likes of Clark, Fromholz, Keen, Eric Taylor and the late Van Zandt. The album echoes the reverential stories that fill Lovett’s live performances. Lovett intended “Step Inside This House” – whose title is taken from the first song Guy Clark ever wrote – as a single CD. But once he started recording, backed by the likes of Nashville stars Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, Lovett couldn’t stop, and the set expanded to 21 songs and two CDs.”I mostly learned how to play guitar by playing these songs,” said Lovett who, before taking up guitar, played alto saxophone and sang in the choir. “That’s why there are so many songs on that record – I couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop playing. They were so much fun to do.”Lovett’s string of albums, all roundly acclaimed, combine blues, folk, gospel and rock. But the stamp that stands out most clearly through all of his work is the Texas songwriting tradition. A large number of the songs – “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” “Don’t Touch My Hat,” “I’ve Been to Memphis,” “The Road to Ensenada” – are centered around Texas and its icons. Lovett wears cowboy boots – some with his name written up the length of the boot – and his album and promo photos frequently have him in a cowboy hat. Having spent a few years early in his career in Nashville, Lovett now lives on the land in the unincorporated area of Klein that has been in his family since 1949, in a house his granddaddy built in 1911.Still, when asked why the Texas songwriting tradition is such a powerful one, Lovett’s first response is, “I have no idea.” But after a moment of reflection, he hits upon some threads that seem to run through many decades of Texas music.”For me, it’s partly based in the cowboy storyteller tradition,” said Lovett. “It’s a Texas thing, but it’s also a Western frontier thing. That freedom: ‘I can make it up as I go.’ Townes Van Zandt songs have that quality. Guy Clark songs have that quality. It’s an honest expression without regard to convention or business. It’s an honest expression. And that’s what appeals to me.” — As Texas-centric as he is, Lovett has found something of a second home in Aspen. His performance at tonight’s concert will be his third appearance in the Aspen area in the last six months, having played a series of shows at the Wheeler Opera House last month and made his Jazz Aspen debut at the Labor Day Festival in September. He played Harris Concert Hall, along with Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash and Willis Alan Ramsey, during the first Spirit of Skiing event four years ago. He played the old Bayer-Benedict Music Tent with his Large Band. Twice he played intimate, unannounced gigs at the original Howling Wolf; the first of those, a legendary night in recent Aspen history, went until nearly 4 in the morning.Lovett traces his affair with all of Colorado to his first tour of the state, in 1987. He and cellist John Hagen drove a truck through a snowstorm from Boulder to Aspen to open for Bonnie Raitt at the old Paradise Club. Lovett found much to love: the scenery, the response of the crowd, and local promoter David Laughren, to whom he extends much of the credit for adopting Aspen so fully. When he graduated to the Wheeler in the mid-’90s Lovett was further hooked.”It’s such a great size,” he said of the opera house, an unusually small venue for Lovett but one he returns to once or twice a year for a series of shows. “And it feels smaller than that. It feels like it’s 100 people.”But as much as any venue, or the challenge of skiing, or friendships with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Spirit of Skiing creator Kiki Cutter, Lovett finds a spirit in the Aspen community that inspires him.”People live in Aspen because they want to,” he said. “You get the sense that people are there because they like it. And it’s not easy – people drive to work there from Rifle.”In the human experience, there’s nothing more inspiring than to be around people who like things – who are interested in what they’re doing, who enjoy what they’re doing. That’s the feeling I get in Aspen.” — Lovett has used his status as a musician to expand his own field of interests. When I went to Houston’s Museum of Contemporary Art a few years ago, it was Lyle Lovett’s voice on the handheld speaker that guided me through the exhibit. Over the last decade, Lovett has developed a side career as a film actor, appearing in “The Opposite of Sex,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and a string of films by director Robert Altman, including a memorable turn as the police detective in the hit, “The Player.”But Lovett approaches the art of acting with less ambition than he does music.”I really enjoy getting to do that occasionally,” he said of his acting. “My ambition as an actor is, if someone hires me, I want to do a good job. In terms of ambition, I just want to do it right.”In high school, I decided to play football because I was a fan and had never done it. I just got pounded. But it gave me a real appreciation for the guys that play, for the game. That’s how I feel about acting.”Lovett’s deepest thrills, of course, have come in music. Just as he has found joy in covering songs of his heroes, he has been honored to have his tunes covered by the likes of Lou Rawls and Willie Nelson. “That’s the highest compliment someone can pay you,” he said. “When Willie recorded my songs [“Farther Down the Line” and “If I Was the Man You Wanted”], I thought that’s as good as it gets.”Tonight’s concert reunites Lovett with a trio of players he knows well. The quartet of Lovett, Hiatt, Clark and Ely appeared at the Marlboro Country Music Festival in 1991, an event sponsored by Marlboro cigarettes. (“It was a fine line between advocating smoking and just getting a chance to play,” said Lovett.) The four followed with a series of shows on the East Coast, and Lovett is looking forward to the rare spontaneity that comes with sitting onstage with fellow performers.”What’s fun is, what goes on onstage makes you decide what to do,” said Lovett. “The fun of it is seeing what will happen.”And you get to mess up their songs by jumping in, which is really fun.”


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