It’s easy to forget that Lyle Lovett’s musical roots run deep in the heart of Texas songwriting. In recent years, his music has leaned heavily toward R&B, jazz and gospel, sounding ever further removed from the country music charts where he first made his mark in the mid-’80s. Step Inside This House is hardly an attempt to regain country radio airplay, but it’s definitely a step back toward Lovett’s musical origins. A two-disc set consisting solely of cover songs penned by Texas songwriters, it’s a genuine acknowledgment of primary influences, a way for Lovett to shed light on many of the mentors who helped make him the musician he has become.
Disc one serves as a broad overview, with songs by ten different writers plus a traditional tune. Particularly memorable is the title track, a Guy Clark song that sounds as if it probably influenced “This Old Porch”, a staple of Lovett’s catalog co-written with Robert Earl Keen. Fittingly, Keen gets his moment here too, as Lovett delivers a sterling rendition of “Rollin’ By”. Other high points include Vince Bell and Craig Calvert’s “I’ve Had Enough” (Lovett contributed backing vocals on Bell’s recording of the tune four years ago); David Rodriguez’s “Ballad Of The Snow Leopard And The Tanqueray Cowboy”; and “Sleepwalking”, which is apparently the first new Willis Alan Ramsey song to reach the record racks in more than a quarter-century (the reclusive Ramsey has never followed up his landmark self-titled debut of 1972).
Three other songwriters featured on the first disc — Townes Van Zandt, Walter Hyatt and Steven Fromholz — are subjected to a sharper focus on disc two, which opens with three Fromholz tunes collectively known as the “Texas Trilogy”. Lovett seems to be on a mission here to remind folks of this once-prominent tunesmith from the mid-’70s outlaw country heyday; Fromholz wrote songs recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, yet his name commonly draws blank stares nowadays.
The rest of the second disc alternates between songs by Van Zandt and Hyatt — both of whom left this mortal coil in the past couple years — before closing with the gentle traditional “Texas River Song”. As with the whole of Step Inside This House, Lovett isn’t aiming to ape the styles of the writers: His Hyatt numbers don’t swing, his Van Zandt covers aren’t pickin’ country blues. Rather, the often piano-based arrangements are elegant and eloquent, characteristics more common to Lovett’s own musical touch.
But they do bring out the grace and beauty inherent in these writers’ works. In particular, Hyatt’s “I’ll Come Knockin’” — which does not appear on any of the four currently available CDs by Hyatt or his old group Uncle Walt’s Band — becomes, in Lovett’s hands, a lullaby for the ages, reason enough in itself for this record to exist. Indeed, Lovett’s reverence for the material, and for its authors’ influence on his own music, helps bring out the best in him on Step Inside This House.