Urbane Cowboy

One of pop culture's worst myths is that country music performers chew tobacco, drive low-end pickup trucks, hate Northerners and sing songs about achy-breaky hearts. It's like saying that all Houstonians wear dime-store cowboy hats all day long, even while smacking the racquetball at the Texas Club. But still, that's the myth of country stardom. And when a C&W genius like Lyle Lovett comes along, good ol' boys go into a tizzy. What kind of self-respecting picker-'n'-grinner wears Armani?

Lovett does. And Comme des Garçons. And about anything houndstooth. It's rumored that he had two pairs of cowboy boots custom-made for the 1994 Robert Altman film, Ready to Wear, in which Lovett played a small role, to the tune of $1,800 and $3,600 each, the first amount for the bone-colored ostrich and the second for the full alligator.

Worse still, Lovett doesn't hunt. Fish. Or drink cheap beer. He wears his tall, wispy brown hair like a peacock's plumage and probably wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of torn jeans. The man has taste. High taste. He plays only Collings guitars, which are handmade. He dines at places like the Caribou Club in Aspen, Hugo's in L.A. and the White House.

He dates celebrities, and for a while was married to one, a long-mouthed gal named Julia. And, as indicated above, he also acts. His first national experience as an entertainer came in 1983, when he played a small role in Mickey Rooney's TV movie Bill: On His Own. His long, thin frame, beady eyes and cucumber of a nose have appeared in a handful of feature films since.

In short, Lyle Lovett does none of the things and carries on in none of the ways mythical cowboys are supposed to. And his music... that's a problem, too.

It's not that his music is not country, because in many ways it is. If country music is based on certain traditional instruments and sounds (i.e., the steel guitar, soft bass, fiddle) and a certain lyrical conceit (i.e., pessimism), then parts of Lovett's music fit the definition. In a song like "North Dakota," from his 1992 record, Joshua Judges Ruth, Lovett takes what could be considered your average breakup song and infuses it with Latin percussion effects, jazz piano riffs and a sharp vocal delivery. Very noncountry. But with a couple acoustic guitar lines and the high-toned moan of the lap steel, the song reverberates with images of the Little Missouri Badlands. It's country, all right. Real country.

And another thing about Lovett as country performer: He sings with no twang. Sometimes he whispers, groggily, as if he has just gotten up out of bed. Other times he chomps on his words, stressing his s's and t's and pronouncing his long a's like long e's (so shame sounds like sheem). But in no case does he countrify a word, or make it come out stereotypically Southern. This honesty reveals probably the most country "country" attitude around.

But Lovett's music also turns conventional country on its 12-gallon-hat head. Nobody had any idea what to do when -- after two successful, moderately "country" records -- Lovett whipped out his "large" (as opposed to "big") band in 1990, so they gave him a Grammy (his first of six), this one for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Too bad the two-stepping crowd didn't appreciate the trombones and sultry saxophones, the scat-a-tat-tat beats or the lyrics: "What Corn Flakes are to Post Toasties / What the clear blue sky is to the deep blue sea / What Hank Williams is to Neil Armstrong / Can you doubt we were made for each other?"

This ain't how Hank done it, you say? Well, you're right. But if it weren't for wild innovations to the form before Hank, we wouldn't have had Hank. Which means we might not have had the crossover success of Jimmy Rodgers, either. Or the "electric Nashville" sound of Chet Atkins. Or the appropriation of a Williams song by a lounge-crooner like Tony Bennett. Or, least of all, the roots-filled work of Lyle Lovett. If it weren't for invention, and people continually pushing for it, we wouldn't have this rebel among rebels with the Eraserhead hair.

Simply put, Lovett sculpts country music in his own image much in the way Waylon Jennings's "Luckenbach, Texas" moved C&W from the reactionary, hippie-hating conservatism of 1960s-Merle Haggard into the everybody-get-togetherness of the early 1970s. Jennings's song said the South wasn't just a bad reaction to liberal virtue anymore.

Well, neither is Houston, which is, more or less, Lovett's hometown. (Technically, he grew up in Klein, a 45-minute drive from downtown.) And you can make a good case that Lovett embodies the Houston everyman: adaptive, rebellious and ingenious.

Though sentimental country fans bemoan the artist's pop appeal and purported inauthenticity, they make up only a small percentage of the genre's fan base, most of whom are not or have never been occupational cowboys. Thousand-dollar boots and all, Lyle Lovett is new country before new country is cool. Refined but unpretentious, Lyle Lovett -- like the Houston everyman -- is still a little hard for the rest of the country to figure out.

E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony_mariani@ houstonpress.com.


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