Parting Shots: Lyle Lovett

Mike Greenhaus on June 10, 2024
Parting Shots: Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett didn’t see his latest era coming, but he couldn’t be happier about the way things turned out. “I was 59 years old when my children were born, and I had serious doubts about whether I’d ever be a dad,” the 65-year-old, Texas-born singer-songwriter says. “It has been the greatest revelation and better than anything I thought it might be. And my children have given me songs. We’re playing a song live that I made up with them when they were four.”

In 2022, Lovett channeled his newfound paternal role into his first LP in a decade, 12th of June. Some pandemic speedbumps aside, he has also remained on the road in recent years, juggling myriad projects that include his longrunning Large Band, symphonic collaborations with Don Hart and an acoustic combo that allows for some welcome space in his arrangements.

“When I started singing in clubs, I played by myself and then James Gilmer joined on congas,” Lovett says. “Then I met a cellist named John Hagen. So the smaller configuration takes me back to how I think of my presentations. The Large Band came about because of the arrangements we did in the studio. In 1984, my producer, Billy Williams, asked me if I could imagine adding some horns. All of a sudden, my mind was opened to a whole new thing that I had never considered.”

Lovett also performed a few song swaps with Lisa Loeb, this past spring, recalling similar partnerships with John Hiatt, Robert Keen, Vince Gill, Shawn Colvin and Leo Kottke. “It gives me a chance to have a conversation onstage,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “and mess up their songs.”

12th of June was partially inspired by the flow of your live show. How did your band inform the material on that album?

It had been 10 years since my previous album, so I wanted to reflect the entire spectrum of how I perform—the standards I’d been playing with the band, the duets I’d done with my singing partner, Francine Reed. We started playing the instrumental [“Cookin’ at the Continental”] in 1988. It was important to show the big picture of the Large Band and then record some of my more personal songs— they are a reflection of my life.

I was just so excited about becoming a dad. My children gave these songs to me. Just being able to be part of their lives—helping them discover their interests—is the most fun I’ve ever had. And I’ve had lots of fun. My parents were always supportive of my interests. We rode off-road motorcycles—my dad was a mechanic for me on Sundays. My mom would take pictures and film the races. I worked in a motorcycle shop through high school. And all the while, I took guitar lessons because I’ve always been interested in music. When I went to college, playing music replaced racing—it had the same adrenaline rush you’d get on the starting line.

Up until the children were born, I participated in advantage racing. I haven’t given it up— we’re involved in the horse business. But I haven’t spent a week or 10 days at a horse show away from my children since they were born. My parents worked—they were gone all day. When I’m home with my children, I get to really be home with them. I take them to school. I’ve played songs for their kindergarten class. I know their classmates by name. There’s a couple of little girls that hug me every day; there’s a little boy that shakes my hand really seriously and calls me Mr. Lovett. And there’s another boy that calls me by my first and last name. We’ll stand around the parking lot for half an hour just talking to the parents—I love the culture.

Though your songs are very personal, you continue to perform material written throughout your entire career. Do you still relate to the person you see in your earliest tunes?

It’s like looking at an old picture. I write from personal experience. I have never been great at writing about an idea that isn’t connected to a genuine feeling that I’ve had. The ideas that I tend to write about are the ones where I think to myself: “Put that out of your mind.” But something is tapping you on the shoulder, making you finish it. Those early songs are snapshots of where I was at the time. It’s easy for me to connect to that part of my life—they’re no less true then they were at the time, but they represent another time. I’m proud of my career and grateful for my life.

You studied journalism in school. Did that experience inform your writing style?

I never thought I’d be a journalist. My parents both earned college degrees while working. I went to both of their graduations when I was a little boy. Going to school was important to them, but I was obsessed with playing. From 1976 on, I played between two-four nights a week. I was insecure to the point where I thought, “If I don’t have something booked, then I’m not really doing it.” I was a history major but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a teacher. I got good grades on my papers, so I went over to the journalism department at Texas A&M. The newsroom was full of people that were as interested in what they were doing as I was in music. So I ended up writing for them. My beat was the city council, and we’d draw straws for the entertainment stories. I focused on singer-songwriters— the acts that were coming to play our coffeehouse rather than the big basketball arena.

During the pandemic, you performed “Friend of the Devil” on eTown with Bob Weir. You famously recorded that classic for Deadicated and performed it at Red Rocks after Jerry Garcia’s passing. What does that tune mean to you?

“Friend of the Devil” was a staple we learned in the ‘70s. I had some buddies in Bryan and College Station that I’d sit in with, and we’d do that song. Then, Jerry asked me if I’d be a part of the Deadicated album and I was just over the moon. That recording session was a pivotal moment in my career. It was a time of transition—my first three records were released by MCA Records in Nashville and my producer, Tony Brown, realized that my audience wasn’t the mainstream-country audience. He helped move me to MCA Los Angeles. “Friend of the Devil” was the first thing I recorded in that transition. And that experience led to my first album for MCA Los Angeles, which is still my best-selling album. Working with all those people changed the course of my career and led to what I would do for years to come. Playing with people who are the best at what they do is so inspiring. It makes me look forward to every show— improvisation is a huge part of what we do.

Over the course of a long career, the next step has everything to do with the people you meet—the relationships you make over the long haul. I’ve been lucky to work with people that I not only love to be onstage with but that I enjoy riding the bus with. It makes for a nice life.