SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As you might suspect from some of the songs he’s given the world — “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To,” “(Keep It in Your) Pantry,” to name a few — singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett is a clever guy, devastatingly honest, with a wry sense of humor.
He’s also whip-smart. How could he not be, having majored in German and journalism at Texas A&M University?
His brain works at a much faster pace than his mouth articulates his thoughts. That’s OK, though — he likes to take his time.
In a recent telephone interview from his home in Klein, Texas (the town was named after his great-great-grandfather), where he lives in a house his grandfather built in 1911, Lovett stretched a 20-minute interview to at least twice that length. The wide-ranging talk, ostensibly to promote his concert appearances with fellow singer-songwriter John Hiatt, covered everything from gratitude to grammar, from storytelling (something he’s great at) to selling himself (something he’s less confident with).
“From the time I was 18, I started playing in (south Texas) clubs,” he said. “I was so insecure that I didn’t think I could call myself a musician unless I had a gig scheduled, so I tried to get as much work as possible. After a couple of years playing anywhere I could, I got enough of my own songs together that I could play a whole set of my music and get into original-music clubs. It was a huge thing for me to be able to open for people that I admired — people I learned so much from.”
Lovett names singer-songwriters Mickey Newberry, Guy Clark and the late Townes Van Zandt among his heroes, and says they share an approach to country music that is not just distinctly Texan but uniquely south Texan.
“It’s really more a literary tradition than a musical tradition, although it gets all mixed up,” he said. “At the time, clubs in Houston — the Jester, places like that — the people who went there were part of the art scene in Houston and they were interested in hearing what someone had to say, not just listening to something they could drink a beer and dance to.
“It was poetry, and intended to be so. I think about that and I wonder what makes that, what makes someone take that approach to performing in a club. I mean, there were great dancehalls down here, too. I think the reason that (our approach to music) continues to persist is that people play to play. They’re not playing to an industry crowd; they’re not playing a showcase. There’s not an ambition to it beyond the gig. There’s not a business ambition to it. It allows people to do something for the sake of doing it.”
“Early on, I used to think it was solely an artistic choice, but some of it has to be economic, you know. Songwriters aren’t always performers and even performing songwriters aren’t always the kind of show-biz performers you think they’d be. Songwriters, in my experience, tend to be more ... just people.
“I’m not really a competitive person,” Lovett said, “and I’m not naturally comfortable in front of people. In school, I didn’t speak up often in class. I was never the person to yell out an answer. If I knew it, I might whisper it to my buddy and let him answer. I kept quiet. Growing up, the last thing I ever thought I’d do is be an entertainer.”
Now that he is an entertainer — and a solid one, with four Grammy Awards, including one for best male country vocal performance and one for best country album — he has found a level of comfort in performing. In the 25 years since the release of his first self-titled album, Lovett has released 14 recordings (with sales of more than 4 million) and acted in a number of films (Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and “Pret-a-Porter,” among them) and TV shows (including “Mad About You” and “Brothers & Sisters”).
For the past few years, he alternated tours with his Large Band with songwriter circles featuring Clark, Joe Ely, Hiatt and himself, and acoustic shows with Hiatt.
“As a songwriter, you try your best to write a good song, and you like nothing better than hearing a good song. It’s easy to admire a great song, and you want to share out of enthusiasm. That’s where (the songwriter shows) come from. Songwriters are like that. They are genuinely enthusiastic.
“The show that John and I do is not scripted in any way, and we do not discuss at all what we’re going to play. John always plays first — we go in alphabetical order — and what I play is determined or suggested by what he plays first. And we just go from there. It’s very relaxed, a free exchange.
“I’m not really competitive, as I said. I don’t walk out and think I’m going to try to beat the other guy. I just want to play and perform better than I did the last time.”
Lovett’s comfort level onstage is a result of years of experience — and exhaustion.
“The first time I toured with the Large Band in 1988, I got so tired. If I just stood still anywhere, I could go to sleep. I was that tired. But I had to perform. And I did, and after that tour, I was much less fretful about going out onstage.
“I enjoy it, enjoy the differences between audiences night to night.
“The most important thing you can do as a performer is to be yourself, or be an onstage version of yourself. If you’re not being true to yourself and somebody likes that other version of you, you’re kind of stuck.”
Lovett said, “The stuff I’m doing is not complex. But it’s sincere. I respect the people who come to see me. I appreciate ‘em coming. I appreciate ‘em being there.”