Lyle Lovett has good posture.
Onstage, performing with his Large Band, he stands tall and correct — as though after 13 solo albums and all these years, he was still singing in the childhood choir of his Lutheran church, buttoned up in his Sunday best. His bearing is that of a deliberate man acting with no wasted motion. Just doing his job. And too well-mannered to let on that he is proud of his work. Mr. Lovett does not jiggle onstage. He barely moves.
All of this might be unremarkable or merely quirky if it weren't for the lyrics he's singing, the nod and wink perennially lurking in the songwriter's eyes.
"Slap my baby on the/ Make it happy/ I'm a happy son-of-a-gun," he tells us in a buoyant new song "Make it Happy." And he makes a believer of you.
His urge to chronicle life in plain spoken words manifested early on. At Texas A&M, Lovett majored in journalism. Writing for the school's newspaper, The Battalion, gave the young reporter an opportunity to interview some of the Austin music scene's leading lights and his personal heroes, including Willis Alan Ramsey and Steven Fromholz. In the end, a career in journalism fell victim to Lovett's avowed disinclination to delve into personal questions with his subjects, topics he felt were none of his business.
By this time, Lovett was already playing clubs around town, forming the deep connection to Austin and Texas songwriters he still maintains. Last year's Songwriters Tour saw Lovett bringing together an affable group of talented musicians, hitting the road with long-time pals Joe Ely, Guy Clark, and John Hiatt.
A week ago, Lovett began a 39-city North American tour that brings him to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on July 5. His most recent album, It's Not Big, It's Large, released last September, is typically eclectic Lovett material: a brassy, bouncy big band number titled "Tickle Toe" segues into the heartfelt defiance of "I Will Rise Up" which, in turn, leads into a mid-life reassessment anthem, "All Downhill."
"I've had an excellent time so far," he sings, "There's only one thing that I fear/ I've been up so long on this lucky star/ It could be all downhill from here."
He need not fear very much. Lovett continues to explore the boundaries of his creativity in more than just music. He's been working on a new film, Michael Meredith's The Open Road, in which he plays a Memphis bartender opposite Justin Timberlake. The film is in post-production now, and Lovett has lately been in the studio recording songs for the soundtrack.
But one ongoing preoccupation these days, perhaps evidenced by the delay in touring with his new album, is his ranch in Klein, Texas. The family property was sold to developers in 1979 after his grandmother's death, and, since 1985, Lovett has been slowly buying it back, piece by piece. It is a labor of love: restoring his grandparent's farm to his childhood memory of it.
One of the songs on It's Not Big, It's Large shares those memories. "South Texas Girl" reads like an elegy, an extension of the album's dedication, "In memory of Dad."
Lovett describes taking a drive in the family's Ford Fairlane. "Down farm roads past open fields seeming like no big deal/ As it was happening I never felt a thing/ But now looking back it seems like it was everything," he sings.
It's lyrical moments like this that we've come to expect from Lovett, who gives us not only the sly wink but also the understated eloquence of a cowboy poet who's reflected upon his life deeply. And every fan seems to recall that moment when a Lovett song seemed to be speaking to them directly.
I once saw Lovett perform at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, just outside Denver. The woman who would, unknown to either of us, become my sister-in-law within a year had just finished outlining what a bad example I was setting for her kids — the little girls charging up and down the concrete steps of the aisles, dodging audience members trying to take their seats. What with my cohabitation, matrimonial vacillation, and other damning "—ations", she painted a grim portrait of my dubious moral character. I was speechless; slumped in my seat.
Then Lyle took the stage.
"I don't go for fancy cars/ For diamond rings/ Or movie stars/ I go for penguins," he sang. "Penguins are so sensitive/ To my needs."
And that made me sit up straight, with a smile on my face, knowing everything would somehow be alright.