Over the course of his thirteen albums, Lyle Lovett has become one of America’s most beloved singer/songwriters. His latest effort, Release Me, is primarily a collection of covers that run the gamut from the Townes Van Zandt rockabilly barn burner “White Freightliner Blues” to the classic spiritual “Keep Us Steadfast.” The songs reflect the varied musical styles that have set Lovett apart from other contemporary artists. “I’ve been performing these songs live since the seventies,” he says from his family’s farm outside of Houston. “So I was hoping the record would show where my tastes come from. It’s stuff that’s been a part of my life for a long time.”
Why haven’t you ever left the family farm?
I travel so much it just feels right to come back to the same place. My great-great-grandfather was one of the original immigrants in our area. He was a weaver by trade in Germany and was pressed into service during the Civil War to weave cloth for Confederate uniforms. But then he became a farmer, and since then, one child from each generation has kept the farm going. I now live in the house that my grandparents lived in. My mom is my neighbor on one side and my uncle is on the other. He has a small dairy operation.
Do you get out there and work at all?
If I used the w word around my uncle, he would laugh at me. We make our own hay, and I have a few mama cows of my own. I mainly like going out there and socializing with them. But we now have a horse breeding business, and that’s something that I love. Horses teach you patience and how to do things the right way so you can get the right result.
Was music part of your upbringing?
My parents worked for Exxon, and they gave me every chance to take part in music. I took guitar lessons and I was in the choir at school. My first performance was in second grade with my friend Rodney Fisher, and we worked up versions of “Long Tall Texan” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It gave me a little early confidence that I could actually do this music thing.
But you ended up going to Texas A&M and majoring in journalism.
I was playing clubs, but I didn’t think I could do it full-time, so I majored in journalism and worked on the city desk for the school paper. I had great fun. But then I started playing gigs three or four times a week. I would play places like Anderson Fair a lot in Houston. It’s a very important place in my career, not only to play but to hear music. It only holds about eighty people and is owned by a guy who has a day job and uses volunteers to help him run the place. It’s really great.
So are you a big college football fan?
Oh yeah. Once an Aggie, always an Aggie. But this whole business of them moving to the SEC, I’m just not in favor of it. It just doesn’t seem a team from Texas should be in a Southern conference.
You went to A&M with Robert Earl Keen. Do you Texas guys get together and have a singer smackdown?
Ha. It’s a shame that you don’t get to see your friends unless you work with them. I haven’t seen Robert in a couple of years. I’ve gotten to know Willie Nelson and played shows with him. He was doing a new song this past summer called “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” He has such a good sense of humor. But let’s just say I’m very cautious about going on his bus.
On the new album’s title track you duet with your longtime friend k.d. lang. Any good stories about her?
Man, she’s one of the greatest singers alive. I remember we were playing in St. Louis on our first tour together, in 1988. I watched her performance and she was spinning around and around. After the set I told her how great she was and said, “You look good from the back, too.” And she turned around and flipped her skirt up at me.
You’re also a successful actor. How do you feel about turning artistic control over to someone else?
That’s what I enjoy about it. I’ve gotten to work with some wonderful directors and people who have been great teachers to me. With my music I’m responsible for everything and look after every aspect of it. When I act, I get to be a guy in the band. I just show up to do something very specific. Robert Altman [Lovett appeared in Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts] was a great observer of people and a keen judge of character. Smart people seem to listen and watch a lot.
You’re inextricably linked with Texas. Do you have a favorite restaurant or bar?
There are too many to name. But I do have a rule that I don’t eat Mexican food east of the Mississippi.
Really? Chicago has great places. Rick Bayless, one of the country’s top chefs, is a huge proponent of Mexican cuisine.
I’ve never eaten Mexican food in Chicago. And, no disrespect, but it can’t be that good if a guy named Bayless is cooking it.