Today, 64-year-old Lovett even jokes that he should “play a lot better than me” considering how young and how often he played guitar in his youth. As a child, he also took piano lessons, but the memory of these juxtaposes his guitar studies. His teacher, who was a fairly nice lady, he said, was also stricter and less forgiving than Mr. Woods. “The lessons weren’t as fun,” admits Lovett. In fact, he went there early to shoot hoops with his teacher’s son and when he came to class with dirty fingernails, she scolded him. Mr. Woods helped Lovett want to pursue music, from the age of 8 and throughout his life. Sadly, Mr. Woods passed away about a decade ago, but he and Lovett have stayed in touch over the years.
“My music teachers all had different influences on me,” says Lovett. “Mr. Woods helped me develop my love of the game.”
Another teacher, a guy named Freddie, introduced Lovett to the music of Chet Atkins. The two were listening to records on a turntable and Freddie was slowing them down to half speed, taking over chord choices, fingerings and arrangements. Later, this yeoman’s work ethic paid off when Lovett, after releasing his debut album (Lyle Lovett) and before releasing its second (Pontiac), met Atkins.
“I was backstage at the CMA Awards in Nashville,” he says. “All of a sudden I was there, inches away from Chet Atkins. He was so cool. He introduced himself because I didn’t know who he was. And I told him I was a big fan , that I listened to so many of his records.
Atkins asked Lovett who played guitar on one of his songs, “cowboy man.” Lovett told him the name of his main electric player. But Atkins said no, who played acoustic? Lovett nervously said he did, to which Atkins said, after pausing and looking straight at Lovett, “Nice thumb.” Which means Lovett was doing a good job with his thumb on acoustics, something he picked up while studying Atkins himself.
“I just thought,” Lovett says today, “that’s all I need here. “Okay, whatever happens after that is just gravy.”
Born in Texas, Lovett attended Texas A&M as a college student. He was doing concerts in town. He studied German and journalism. The zone has shaped it like an ocean shapes a fish. Luckily for Lovett, since Houston is one of the biggest cities in America, there was a diversity of music everywhere. There was a radio station for everything, Top 40, deep album tracks, rock, country, soul and gospel. He can still rattle off radio call letters like KILT and KLOL. He listened to Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Ray Charles, Ray Price, Michael Murphey, Nanci Griffith, and more. But what attracted him the most were the musicians who distilled their efforts as much as possible. He loved singer-songwriters. Just a player and a guitar. He turned to small music clubs that offered that feeling.
“Seeing a performer orchestrate their emotion with a single instrument,” he says, “was something that really appealed to me. Have that emotional impact with just one instrument.
For Lovett, the way you do one thing is essentially the way you do anything. All action is summed up in the essential qualities of who they are. This is how he thinks about his relationship with horse riding and reining competitions. Everything is connected, he says. The same motivation that inspires you to play music is the same that drives you in other life endeavors. For him, it’s the horses. You are not competing with the world, you are competing with yourself. It all depends on the process, not the destination. These are the ideas and platitudes he believes in today as a “wise old man”. It is about appreciating the immensity of a subject such as you are: a singular being.
“Distil it to the bare minimum,” says Lovett. “To its essence.”
For Lovett, who is a talented leader, he is also a talented and respected actor. But he treats them with different perspectives, sort of. As a musician, he is the leader. As an actor, he is a supporter. Both are about the process of creating and accessing emotion, but they are different roles nonetheless. Having a job or jobs rooted in the imagination is a real privilege for him, he says. The fact that he can “peak in acting windows” is particularly special.
“I’m trying to serve someone else’s vision,” he says. “In music, no one will hire me to ‘be a guy in the band’ because I don’t play well enough!”
Lovett likes to pretend. Somehow it’s mystified to be able to do this still, whether as an actor or a musician, trying to come up with rhymes and songs from scratch. He expresses great gratitude when he speaks of these realities. And Lovett always manages to do it. His last album, June 12, is a remarkable album, as diverse as it is rich in talent. It begins with a big band, but the songs range from the tender titular track to the humorous “Pants is Overrated.” The genesis of the eclectic album, which includes a few covers of standards, began with the pandemic. Lovett wanted to, in a way, reintroduce his audience to all that he and his band could do. He also wanted to give fans a chance to hear songs on the record he often played live. Now, however, with the release of the album, Lovett is embarking on a big 61 show. roundincluding 21 with legendary entertainer Chris Isaak, including one in Las Vegas on Saturday, June 18 at The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.
“I’ve known Chris for years,” Lovett says. “The idea for this tour was born – we did a live stream together during the pandemic. So, we cooked up this idea by doing tour dates together. I’m excited about it.
But in the end for Lovett, it’s all about the music, the art, and the pursuit of creation, even if it’s not about the product itself. He’s won multiple Grammys, been married to a movie star, and worked with acclaimed directors. Yet his respect for the song is unwavering, just as it was when he was a child with Mr. Woods. It’s about legendary singer Townes Van Zandt, who spoke of “songs from heaven,” or songs that fell from the sky and ended up in the hands of the writer. Music, says Lovett, is inside everyone. As such, no two days in his life are ever alike – that’s a gift.
“What would the world be without music? he says. “I’m so grateful for that.”
Photo by Michael Wilson/Sacks & Co.