Back in the late 1980s, I was chatting with some middle-age fans during intermission at a mainstream country concert at the Tucson Convention Center Arena. These die-hard country fans were discussing the then-new bunch of "weird" country acts, such as Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, Lucinda Williams and, especially, Lyle Lovett.
These exasperated folks just didn't get these new acts challenging the country-pop hegemony of the era.
Lovett, whose first album came out in 1986, chuckles at my story and remembers that time as he speaks via cell phone from his home in Texas.
"When I went to Nashville to be a songwriter in 1984 ... what I heard all the publishers talking about was how things had ground to a halt after the Urban Cowboy phase, that it was a new low in the business, and that Nashville was looking for the next big thing. There are a lot of new artists around who didn't fit that mold, and it looked like it was going to go in our direction, along with people like Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith," he says.
"What turned out was the rise of Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Clint Black and, of course, Garth Brooks. I have nothing against any of them, but they became the trend. But that's OK, because those of us who followed the path of experimentalism in country music, we kind of slipped through the door with them."
It didn't hurt that Lovett's A&R man at Curb Records was producer Tony Brown, who played piano for such artists as Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash before becoming a music executive. "In my case, I was lucky to be working with Tony Brown, who was as open-minded and caring as an A&R person can be, and he had great instincts and radar."
Lovett's adventurous combination of folk, country, bluegrass, swing, jazz, R&B, blues and gospel may not have fit well into the Top 40 at the time, but he's had staying power. You could argue that the 54-year-old Lovett is now one of the established leaders in boutique country for adventurous listeners.
Lovett will return to Tucson for a concert on Sunday, July 1, at the Fox Tucson Theatre.
His recently released 13th album marks the end of his 26 years with Curb. Cleverly titled Release Me, its cover photo depicts Lovett bound from neck to feet in rope, waiting to be untied. But he shows no bitterness toward his now-former record label. In fact, he attests to having fond memories of the period and to being proud of the fact that he remained at one label until now. It's not often you hear about such an amicable breakup.
"I'm really proud of what I was able to accomplish during that time, and I really appreciate the opportunities I had there," Lovett says. "I think it's something unusual these days to hear about an artist who sticks around until the actual end of their contract."
Lovett isn't sure where his career is headed after the current tour, and he's OK with that. "I'm curious about what the future will hold, especially because of how the music business, and the ways in which music is delivered to the listener, have changed a great deal.
"I expect that it's likely that I will produce my own records, and become affiliated with another label for distribution, but not for an actual record deal. I sort of like the flexibility that implies."
Release Me is hardly your typical obligatory, contract-ending album. Although it features mostly covers (and two originals), there's no such thing as a throwaway Lyle Lovett album. The quality of the recording and playing is high. And he indulges in all of the musical genres that have established him as one of the most stylistically diverse artists in country and beyond.
And, typical for a Lovett recording, it sounds great.
"Actually, I was thrilled with how this record came together, sonically and in the performances on these tracks," he says "... It was a record that felt pretty effortless to make. We just went into the studio and played, and that was kind of it."
The album is in many ways a tribute to some of Lovett's favorite songwriters, from Chuck Berry ("Brown Eyed Handsome Man") to Michael Franks ("White Boy Lost in the Blues"); from Jesse Winchester ("Isn't That So") to Townes Van Zandt ("White Freightliner Blues").
Lovett said he primarily chose tunes that he already knew, loved and, in many cases, had performed. "Some of the songs I've performed live over the course of my career. I didn't have to learn a single song before we started recording. Some of them, I learned as long ago as 1976."
He also shares the microphone with some talented guests. There's a duet with Kat Edmonson on the Frank Loesser classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and Sara Watkins joins him on the heartbreaking "Dress of Laces," by John Grimaudo and Saylor White.
Aside from being a pun on being released from his record deal, the title track is a marvelous duet with k.d. lang. Lovett has been familiar with the country standard, made famous by Ray Price, even longer than he has most of the others.
"I've always liked that song. It's one that I heard with my mom and dad at the local dances when I was a kid. I chose the song for the pun in it, but it got really exciting when k.d. agreed to sing it with me."
Lovett, who became known for his swinging, horn-infused Large Band, is playing the current tour with his Acoustic Group, which includes two longtime collaborators—drummer Russ Kunkel and bassist Viktor Krauss—both of whom have played with him since the early 1990s. Also in the band are fiddler Luke Bulla, cellist John Hagen and Keith Sewell on guitar and mandolin.
He says playing with such revered sidemen is great, but the experience is also enhanced by the fact that they've been working together for so long. "It really does become like a family."
On the current tour, that family will play some new material, and lots of older stuff, reinterpreted in refreshing fashion for the acoustic format.
"I'm really fond of these smaller arrangements," Lovett says. "They leave more space and make for a different sound and feel than what you might be used to."