The business likes to play to the lowest common denominator and underestimates the appetite for sharp good work," says Texas songwriter Lyle Lovett "It's a real mistake to think people aren't going to notice something or appreciate subtlety or detail."
There will probably always be a market for Nashville country pop stars, but they're cheap Chinese knock-offs compared to the authentic stitching and tanned leather lyricism of artists like Lovett or his friend and perpetual tourmate John Hiatt. Not that Lovett's ever been penned in by any genre.
Although most associated with tumbleweed Texas country-blues, Lovett has proven to be a musical Zelig equally at home with jazz swing, gospel-soul, jump blues, rock and folk in a career spanning three decades and 11 studio albums. Songs range from crooning ballads to keen character sketches and plaintive odes, all carried by direct and honest lyricism that pares away pretense to reveal the essential.
"I like listening to work that seems to have been the result of an artist being compelled to write what he writes for no other reason than to express himself," says Lovett.
Lovett cites Richard Thompson as a prime example. "Richard is just trying to live up to his own standards," Lovett says. "And you just know when he puts out a record that it's going to have great songs, great playing and great singing — because Richard Thompson only knows how to do it one way."
For his own part, Lovett gets his greatest reward from how his songs connect with others once he lets them loose in the world.
"The nicest compliment somebody can give is to talk about one of my songs in the context of their own life. When my song and my work reminds somebody of his own life and his own experience, that's when you feel like the dots are being connected."
How those dots will be aligned going forward is Lovett's foremost concern these days. Since his career began with the 1986 self-titled release for Curb Records/MCA, he had been tied to the same label until recently. He's not ready to get a downtown condo with a hot tub and start hitting the singles bar, figuratively speaking, but he's enjoying the feeling of liberation. "I'm just trying to figure out what to do next, who to do business with, and how I'll do my next release."
In the meantime, Lovett's out on tour with his buddy John Hiatt in the side-by-side, dueling songwriter format they've used in the past. "It gives me a chance to ask questions that if I were sitting in the audience, I would want to ask and interrupt somebody's show," he laughs. "It's a discussion/workshop kind of performance, and the audience seems to enjoy it."
Lovett's very aware how fortunate he is, not necessarily for finding success, so much as finding a vocation he truly loves.
"I'm already doing what I would do whether I got paid or not," he says. "My heroes — to get to work with and get to know them as people — that is not a privilege I undervalue. I think it's an extraordinary thing to peek behind the curtain a little bit."