When is a country artist not a country artist? Actually, when is a country artist not even close to being a country artist?
When he's proud Texan Lyle Lovett (and his Large Band). The marketing of Lovett--who is segregated to the country-music ghetto of most record stores--and the insatiable need for the music industry and the media to put a label on the creative process signify so much of what is wrong with the music biz. Fortunately, Lovett, crossing so many stylistic boundaries, is doing his best to show it really is about the music, labels be damned.
Another unwritten rule of the music business is that when you go out on tour, you plug the piss out of your most recent release. While the quality of the show is often dependent upon the quality of that release, the quality can also depend on how excited the artist is about playing that same material night after night after night. When Lovett and his traveling road show hit Tucson next week, it will be more than a year since his most recent release, It's Not Big It's Large. As such, he'll feel no such restraints when it comes to song selection.
What is different is that this summer, Lovett will be touring with a not-quite-as-large band as usual, as he'll be without his horn section. In a recent interview with the Rocky Mountain News (the Tucson Weekly's attempts to arrange an interview were unsuccessful), Lovett dispelled the rumor that he's out with a smaller band because of gas prices.
"It doesn't have anything to do with gas prices, but (it's true) we don't have our horn section this summer. We decided for creative reasons to go a different direction," he told the Rocky Mountain News. "It's not the size of the band but the different components that dictate the set list. I always try to organize it so that everyone has a chance to play. This way, we're able to play some songs that are not necessarily horn songs. It's more flexible, and that makes it a bit more different than the last three times we've been out."
According to reviews, shows this summer have been running more than 2 1/2 hours, and despite the absence of the horns, they have not been lacking. Jazz, blues, gospel, soul and swing are all a part of the show. With so many musicians to work with onstage, Lovett is able to reconfigure his band in several different directions. This might mean paring it down to just the string players for a mini-bluegrass set before layering everyone back in, building to several raucous crescendos.
Make no mistake: Even the Not Quite as Large Band is still quite substantial, with 10 instrumentalists, including musicians on fiddle, mandolin, piano, dobro, pedal steel guitar and cello, with three backup singers. East Coast performances this summer have also been graced with full-on local church choirs joining in, opening the show with "Church" and "I Will Rise Up," and closing with "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord."
Not exactly your standard country fare.
But such is the nature of Lovett, who has always been a bit of a Renaissance man. In addition to recording and touring with his unwieldy ensemble, he has gone out on the road with fellow Texans Joe Ely and Guy Clark. With John Hiatt rounding out their songwriters' circle, they play the kind of shows that probably make record-company executives cringe--small, intimate venues with product sales split among too many stars. While Hiatt and Ely are contemporaries, Guy Clark is a songwriter Lovett has long looked up to. Along with the late Townes Van Zandt, he represents one of Lovett's most compelling influences. Having done this more than once, he has clearly enjoyed the opportunity to step outside the comfort zone of the big stage.
Another stage that has indirectly helped shape Lovett's career is the Hollywood soundstage. Although they were all relatively small parts, you could tell Lovett was having fun in the four Robert Altman movies in which he appeared, including The Player and Short Cuts. The fact that he has not chosen to continue in movies is another sign that Lovett is only moved to do what he wants, when he wants.
None of this means that Lovett isn't interested in commercial success. While he acknowledges It's Not Big It's Large is one of his strongest albums, he's not shy about sharing his disappointment or frustration over its lack of commercial success.
"More and more, it's incumbent on the artist to do the job the record companies used to do," he told the Rocky Mountain News. "Lost Highway (his current label) is a fine place for me to be, but this record has sold fewer, and I feel it's one of my best records ever, and it's sold fewer than any of my records to date. We really tried to do our part and talk about it and get the word out there. ... Not to say anything bad about Lost Highway or Universal. That's just the state of the business."
Maybe someone should try pulling them out of the country section.