In the winter of 1987-88, Lyle Lovett faced some tricky decisions. His first two albums had yielded five top-25 country singles (and would yield two more in the year to come). True, none of those singles had risen above #10, but still it was an impressive start, especially for such an unconventional artist who was racking up such enthusiastic reviews. He hadn’t achieved country stardom, but he was on the cusp. Should he go for it, or should he step back and take a new approach?
More than one Nashville bizzer urged him to go for it. No more songs about mass murder at a wedding reception, they said, or about riding a pony on a boat. Stick to witty, catchy twists on the country formula, songs like “Cowboy Man” or “Give Back My Heart”. Focus on one sound. Lean on the pedal steel. And, for God’s sake, move to Nashville so you can hang out with publishers and producers.
How did Lovett react to this advice? He bought his grandfather’s house in Klein, Texas. And he hired a horn section.
He publicly unveiled the horns as part of a ten-member band on March 12, 1988, at the Birchmere, then a 300-seat club in northern Virginia. A wicked smile split Lovett’s wedge-shaped face that night: “I’m not used to getting so much help,” he told the standing-room-only crowd, but he was clearly overjoyed by the prospect.
Even leaner and lankier in those days than he is now, he wore a dark suit and a white shirt, and his curly dark hair seemed to defy gravity as it rose to a shelf over his head and tilted to the left. He stepped up to the microphone and, in a baritone drawl as dry as last week’s sports section, said: “Hello. I’m the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder. Wait. Don’t turn the page; I’m not finished.” It was a new song no one had heard, but the whimsical wordplay was familiar.
No sooner had this deadpan introduction finished than the three saxophones punched out a riff and the rest of the band jumped in right behind them. Many in the audience involuntarily leaned back in their chairs as Lovett belted out his best Ray Charles imitation: “Here I am! Yes, it’s me!”
Maybe it wasn’t as momentous as Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, but it transformed another young singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar just as radically and just as unexpectedly. It pushed Lovett into a left turn he is still pursuing today.
Lovett’s new album, My Baby Don’t Tolerate, due out in early October on Lost Highway/Curb, doesn’t have any horns on it, but it boasts a big band playing swing, blues, jazz, gospel and honky-tonk — a mix attempted by few others besides Charles and Willie Nelson. There are lots of solos within the sumptuous arrangements, and the music is clearly as important as the words. The album measures just how far Lovett has traveled since his days as a Townes Van Zandt acolyte, a young wordsmith with a guitar playing coffeehouses in College Station, Texas.
If Dylan’s Newport show proved you could combine Woody Guthrie and the Rolling Stones, Lovett’s Birchmere show proved you could combine Guy Clark and the Ray Charles Band. Even if you were a literate songwriter, a musical storyteller, you needn’t be confined to a tasteful folk-rock or country-rock combo. You could have it all: saxophones, female R&B singers, fiddles, a big fat groove.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to follow my own taste,” Lovett says today. “And my taste is a combination of the records my parents listened to — Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Lefty Frizzell — and the Texas singer-songwriters I listened to in college — Townes, Guy, Willis Alan Ramsey and so on. Being able to apply really good musicians to the singer-songwriter form makes for a lot of fun. And I’ve also been very fortunate to work with budgets that allow me to do that.”
Lovett’s early country hits took on new life when the horns tackled them at the Birchmere. The addition of saxes to “Cowboy Man”, his biggest single, made its swinging pulse crisper and more muscular. The arrangement didn’t obscure the playful lyrics, but it did reinforce the forward propulsion that is one of the song’s chief pleasures.
The addition of R&B singer Francine Reed made the four-part harmonies on songs such as “Closing Time” and “If I Were The Man You Wanted” that much richer. The verses still had Lovett’s conversational intimacy, but the choruses now took on a more expansive camaraderie, proving you could have both in the same song. Opening act Walter Hyatt came out to join the sing-along and clap-along on “M-O-N-E-Y”. And the joke at the heart of “She’s No Lady” never worked so well as when Lovett’s voice was blasted over the top by the band behind him.
“Most of my songs start out as jokes,” he told the crowd. “The ones people think are serious are the ones that just aren’t funny.”
When critics started referring to this new group as a “big band,” Lovett worried that audiences might come expecting to hear a show like Tony Bennett’s or Harry Connick’s. So he billed his ensemble as “Lyle Lovett & His Large Band” and made that the title of his third album.
“Calling it the Large Band was kind of a joke,” he says today, “because people started calling it big-band music, and it really wasn’t. We played country stuff, and big bands don’t have fiddle and steel. And yet it’s not western swing either, for the western swing bands didn’t have horns. I wanted to make it clear that this was something different from either of those.”
Well, sort of. Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys did carry horns for several years, and both Duke Ellington and Count Basie hired fiddlers from time to time, but Lovett does have a point. None of those bands regularly featured a cellist, as Lovett has, and none of them built a repertoire around singer-songwriter music.