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The Man with NO Plan

40 years into a low-key career, Lyle Lovett still marvels at the magic

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What does it say about America’s attention deficit disorder when an artist as accomplished as Lyle Lovett is still best known for his hairdo—a curly, leaning-tower pompadour—and a brief marriage to Julia Roberts? Then again, maybe it’s easier to understand a maverick musician like Lovett—whose cache of Texas-born tunes runs the gamut from country to jazz to swing to folk to blues and back—when we turn him into a caricature of himself.

His voice creaks and groans in the vein of fellow iconoclasts Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt; his guitar lines swoop and shimmy like fellow expert pickers Ray Benson and Willie Nelson; and his wry wit knifes through the cookie-cutter country scene like fellow outlaws Steve Earle and Dale Watson. Lovett, like all the aforementioned artists, is Texas through and through, a Lone Star original still firmly occupying the same artistic ground where he was birthed in the ’70s, when he started playing coffeehouses and local bars in College Station as a Texas A&M Aggie. “I have no idea [how I got here],” Lovett told NBC’s The Drink in August. “It really is amazing. Doing something that you love to do can turn into your life. I didn’t plan it.”

Since 1986, every single one of his albums has been released in conjunction with his original label, Curb Records—though 2012’s Release Me represented the final fulfillment of his contract with the iconic country label. Echoing Lovett’s ironic humor, it even featured cover art depicting him tied up in rope; in a famous Esquire interview Lovett gave that year, he said, “My records have sold enough to make the record company money to help me keep my job. A record company doesn’t keep you because they like you. They keep you because you make them money.”

Perhaps it was Lovett’s eccentric upbringing that made him view fame from a pragmatic perspective. Both his parents worked for Exxon, but had him in guitar, choir, tap and ballet lessons by age four. Lyle grew up working his great-great-grandfather’s farm, and even though he has four Grammys and six gold records to his credit, Lovett still lives on the family plot of land, helping his uncle raise cows and breed horses. Just last month, he told Billboard Magazine, “Being in tune with your horse is absolutely analogous to becoming part of your instrument. Through feel, you’re able to help your horse do the things you want it to do. Likewise, you’re able to play notes in an expressive way, not in a mechanical way, where you have to think about it.” The best part of horsemanship, Lovett added with his trademark Texas wit, “[At shows,] I’m not a novelty. I’m just a guy with a horse. No one asks about music.”

At this point, no one much asks about Lovett’s acting career, which began in 1992 when legendary director Robert Altman cast him in The Player. Lovett met Roberts on set, and the two fell hard for each other, eloping after only three weeks and generating classic tabloid headlines like “Pretty Woman Marries Ugly Man.” Less than two years later, the couple divorced, though the two stars are reportedly still friends. In her 1998 film Stepmom, Roberts even sang “If I Needed You,” a break-your-heart Townes Van Zandt ballad Lovett recorded and released the same year. Earlier this year, Lovett married longtime girlfriend April Kimble—to much less tabloid fanfare.

Since The Player, Lovett has appeared in 10 more films, including three of Altman’s, and a handful of TV shows. He’s also written and performed tunes for The Crying Game, Toy Story, Deadwood and True Blood. And he even made his stage debut in a 2010 Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Much Ado About Nothing, playing Balthazar. And he pen several new compositions for the modern-day adaptation. Cementing his low-key rep, Lovett told Garden & Gun he relishes the relative anonymity of acting: “With my music, I’m responsible for everything … When I act, I get to be a guy in the band. I just show up and do something very specific.”

This tour has Lovett trading out the tour format of his 14-piece “Large Band” to walk an alternate path he’s enjoyed immensely the last five years: harking back to his roots by playing intimate acoustic sets with fellow underrated America troubadour John Hiatt. Maybe it’s Lyle’s way of slipping quietly into that good musical night—or maybe it’s a perfect distillation of Lovett v3.0 after the ascendant ’70s and ’80s and mainstream-courting ’90s and ’00s. Either way, the ever-erudite Lovett is clearly in it for the long haul. “I started getting questions about retirement when I was about 55 years old, and I thought to myself, ‘If retiring is having enough time to just do things you love to do, then I’ve been retired my whole life’,” he told Iowa’s Little Village last fall. “I don’t see any need to retire from doing something I would want to do anyway.”

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