Lyle Lovett is the consummate songwriter’s songwriter, quietly and consistently plying his trade without much in the way of broader cultural awareness (save perhaps his marriage to a certain Hollywood starlet, the one thing for which most people know him). For more than 30 years, Lovett has been putting out consistently solid albums that carry the torch for not only traditional country music storytelling, but also a decidedly literate—and often downright humorous—brand of songwriting. One can’t help but smile at the lyrical smirk permeating songs such as “Cowboy Man”, “Give Back My Heart”, “I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You”, “She’s No Lady” and “If I Had a Boat”, to name but a few. More cerebral than slapstick, Lovett’s is an understated humor perfectly suited to his rootsy approach to country and Americana.
Thirteen albums and two previous compilations in, 2017 sees the release of Greatest Hits. As an artist who’s rarely found himself on the charts, calling an album a collection of “greatest hits” is more tongue-in-cheek than a straight-faced cash-in on already-existing material. With few songs cracking the upper reaches of even the U.S. country music charts (1986’s “Cowboy Man” remains his only Top 10 hit, peaking at number 10), it would make more sense to call it a singles collection, but what’s the point in arguing semantics with an artist like Lovett? The fact of the matter is, for those who get it, the whole of his catalog is worthy of inclusion under a “greatest hits” blanket generalization with some perhaps rising a bit higher than others.
So how does Greatest Hits rank in terms of being a representation of Lovett’s best work? Well, as long as you don’t want anything post-Julia Roberts, Greatest Hits offers up a fine collection of the singer’s 1980s recordings. The trouble is, he then has nearly 25 years’ worth of material that goes unremarked upon. Sure there’s little in the way of stylistic deviation throughout the whole of his career, but this striking consistency is one of the reasons he remains so well-regarded in songwriting circles. Of course one look at the label explains the omission of some three decades and more than half a dozen albums. Released on Curb, Greatest Hits could just as easily be titled Greatest Hits: The Curb Years.
But why get into such nit-picky details when the music is of such overwhelmingly high quality that to call it into question not only the choices for inclusion but also the title itself is nothing more than petty squabbling. Indeed, Greatest Hits offers a fine introduction to the world of Lyle Lovett, hitting all the requisite lyrical and stylistic tropes for which he has long been known and celebrated. And while roughly half the tracks included can also be found on the still-in-print, and confusingly-titled 2001 MCA collection Anthology, Vol. 1: Cowboy Man, there’s not enough overlap for one to win out over the other. In fact, in our a la carte day and age of music consumption, one would be well served to splice the two together to get a slightly more holistic overview of Lovett’s career—at least up until the turn of the millennium.
At 15 cherry-picked songs, Greatest Hits offers a perfectly fine entry point into Lovett’s catalog. Hardcore fans will of course take issue with those that were left off—from the Curb years; let’s not even get into the lack of anything from his time with MCA or Lost Highway—but a collection like this isn’t designed to appeal to the hardcore fan and is instead intended to function as a gateway into an otherwise clandestine world in which each and every one of these tracks could well have been a Top 10 hit. So while songs like the riotous “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” and the contemplative “L.A. County” remain behind, their absence is more than made up for by the inclusion of the aforementioned handful of tracks, his straight-forward cover of “Stand By Your Man” and the should’ve-been-a-hit-single “Private Conversation” (one of the only representatives from Lovett’s late ‘90s tenure at MCA).
Greatest hits collections aren’t meant to please everybody—and this one is no exception—but instead offer something of an aural crash course in some of the best work an artist has to offer. If you like what you hear, you’ll be more than inclined to make your way further down the rabbit hole. For those new to Lyle Lovett, Greatest Hits is as good a place as any to dive right in. Just don’t be surprised if you soon find yourself far from shore and in the presence of a man with a weathered face, lop-sided grin and an unruly mop of hair sitting astride a pony on a boat out on the sea.
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