Lyle Lovett on fatherhood, fame and his first album in a decade
14:44 JST, May 17, 2022
Lyle Lovett needs some extra time before his interview – for good reason. Something more important came up: a chance to take a call with the elementary school he and his wife, April, are trying to get their twin children into. “You got bumped for a kindergarten interview,” Lovett says with a chuckle, when he finally calls from his home in Klein, Texas, outside Houston.
Until about five years ago, this wasn’t the way the singer, songwriter and actor was accustomed to spending his Monday mornings. Then again, Lovett never expected to become a first-time father when he was nearly 60 years old, with a daughter and son born in June 2017.
“It’s wonderful. I mean, I’m so grateful to have had this experience at all,” says Lovett, 64, his warm, gravelly drawl beaming from the other end of the line. His parents were less than half his age when they had him, but at the same point in his own life, Lovett poured everything into getting his music career off the ground. “I always imagined having children,” he insists. “But I had absolutely no idea how much I would enjoy it.”
That joy is stamped on the cover of Lovett’s new album out Friday, “12th of June,” which takes its title from his children’s birthday. It’s his first collection of songs since 2012, when his longtime contract that he first signed with Curb Records in the 1980s came to an end. “I always knew I wanted to record again,” he says. But he was more than happy to bide his time, stockpiling songs and waiting for the right deal to come along, which it finally did in the shape of an offer from Verve Records.
“It was nice. If somebody called up and asked for me to sing a harmony with them on a record, I didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission,” he says of the intervening years.
Much of “12th of June” was recorded in Nashville in the fall of 2019, but the pandemic delayed its release – and for the first time in over 35 years, took him away from regular touring with the Large Band, his aptly named 15-piece band. That meant getting nearly two years of uninterrupted time with his children, taking on parenting duties with April with virtually no outside help, as they kept a careful distance even from his 92-year-old mother, who lives next door on the family property. “I’ve written these songs, but I’m not sitting around reflecting on what it’s like being a dad,” Lovett says. “I’m being a dad.”
The influence of fatherhood on the album can perhaps be most clearly seen in the comedic turn of a song like “Pants is Overrated,” inspired by Lovett’s children and written with a playful, adolescent sensibility. “That’s just something I started singing to them as I was trying to convince them to wear pants,” he says. Similarly, “Pig Meat Man” came from his son’s love for eating bacon. The singer takes clear enjoyment in learning to see the world through his kids’ eyes. “These are the two most interesting people I’ve ever met,” he says proudly.
Russ Kunkel, the Large Band’s drummer for more than 30 years, says that his boss seems “fulfilled” in a whole new way since becoming a father. “I feel that he’s always wanted to have a family and for his family to grow and to go on, for there to be a lineage there,” Kunkel says. That lineage is strong, too: Klein, the unincorporated town where Lovett grew up and has lived most of his life, was named for his great-great-grandfather, Adam Klein. As an only child, he says his cousins are like brothers and sisters to him.
The title track of “12th of June,” in particular, explores notions of fatherhood and tradition with scenes pulled straight from the family reunions that have taken place for generations in East Texas. The Saturday before this interview, in fact, he and 60 or so of his kin congregated at the usual gathering spot – the family cemetery in San Jacinto County, north of Houston, near a creek they’ve dubbed “the Branch,” which gets name-checked in the song. “It’s like a picnic. Everybody brings a covered dish,” says Lovett, adding a quaint touch to the macabre setting.
Given the 10-year gap between albums, Lovett was that much more concerned with writing “from the perspective of a person my age,” he says. Songs like “Her Loving Man” and “Are We Dancing” are touching portraits of lived-in devotion that echo the bond he shares with April. (They’ve been together for 25 years, and married for the past five.) “The Mocking Ones” is a rumination on friendships and the ways that people grow apart over time.
“The clearest thing I can communicate is the world around me, from my point of view. That’s the way I’ve always approached writing, really,” Lovett observes. “But I wasn’t trying to make a grand statement. I was just trying to say what I can say.”
Elsewhere, Lovett leaves the statements to others. Shining a spotlight on the members of his Large Band is standard fare for Lovett, according to Kunkel. “He surrounds himself with really talented people. Some artists would be hesitant to do that, because maybe their egos are too fragile,” Kunkel says. That attitude engenders loyalty among his players. His longtime backup singer Francine Reed, for instance – who’s also recorded with Willie Nelson and Delbert McClinton – has been with him ever since she got called into a recording session for his debut album, “Lyle Lovett,” released in 1986.
“When I first heard him singing, I said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s on his way,’ ” she says. “And I didn’t know that I was going to be going with him.”
Three of the new album’s tracks are showcases for duets with Reed, each crackling with an easy, sure-footed chemistry. Lovett, sensing that her time on the road was winding down, wanted to commemorate some of the pop and jazz standards they’ve sung together onstage. “He’s such a gentleman. He still calls me Miss Reed,” says Reed, 74, who has duly decided to retire from touring after a four-night run at City Winery in New York City next week.
As he gets older, Lovett has dealt not only with the loss of players but of friends. Just last year, he lost fellow singer Nanci Griffith, 68, a close companion and mentor who played a crucial role in his early career. The two first met when he was a reporter for his college paper at Texas A&M University in College Station, about an hour up the road from Klein. She invited him to perform at Anderson Fair, a popular songwriters’ haunt in Houston, where he fell in with the likes of Eric Taylor and Lucinda Williams.
“That was a consistent quality about Nanci. Nanci was quick to encourage younger performers. She extended herself,” Lovett says.
Griffith later invited him to Nashville to sing on her 1984 album “Once in a Very Blue Moon.” While there, he did the rounds with publishing houses and record labels, and ultimately decided to reconnect with the players who made up the original Large Band lineup. Though Lovett was embraced by the country music world, he never fit neatly into any one box. If he were coming up today, he’d likely be considered Americana – a genre that he and Griffith played an indelible part in carving a niche for.
“There’s only one Lyle Lovett,” says Kunkel – a fact, he figures, that can go both ways. “I think he probably has suffered every once in a while by people not knowing what category to put him into,” he adds.
Lovett, reared by an era where singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and John Denver ruled the airwaves, was attracted to a certain musical spirit more than anything. “I was drawn to people who could perform a song in a complete way just with their guitar,” he remembers. There was plenty of that to be found in his home state, particularly in Austin, where some of his heroes like Guy Clark and Townes van Zandt lived. He also eagerly read and reread Jan Reid’s “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,” a 1974 chronicle of the nascent outlaw country movement. “There was something exciting to me that it wasn’t mainstream music, but it was really good,” he says. “It was, like, our own secret music in Texas. And it was immensely popular [there].”
Throughout his career, Lovett has assumed a number of different roles – literally, in some cases. Thirty years ago he made his first serious attempt at acting in Robert Altman’s “The Player,” which kicked off an unlikely stint as a Hollywood star and introduced him to his first wife, Julia Roberts, to whom he was married for two years. “I didn’t have any ambition to act,” he admits, referring to his career as “accidental.” Altman reached out to the singer after catching one of his shows at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1990. “I said, ‘Do I need to take some acting lessons?’ And he said, ‘Heavens no, they’ll just mess you up,’ ” Lovett recalls with a laugh. He went on to appear in three more of Altman’s films.
Most recently, he’s made cameos in two episodes of the CBS police drama “Blue Bloods,” including one that aired in January. Coincidentally, one of the show’s producers, Ian Biederman, attended that same Greek Theatre show as Altman. “Every time I do it, I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a fun way to be creative in somebody else’s environment.”
Now, with “12th of June” available, Lovett can look forward to getting back to his element: on the road with the Large Band. If life, and the outside world, have slowed him down in recent years, he’s nowhere near stopping.
“Not many people in their lives get to do something their whole life that they love to do,” he says. “And I’m grateful for that.”
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