Westword and Lyle Lovett, who headlines at Red Rocks on Tuesday, September 4, with support from Margo Price and his own Large Band, go back a long way. Our first profile of the iconoclastic singer-songwriter was published back in 1986, around the time of his debut album's release. And that's appropriate, because even though Lovett is among Texas's greatest exports, he has plenty of Denver connections, as he makes clear in this charming and highly entertaining interview.
Since our first chat, Lovett has won four Grammy awards and penned a slew of great tunes ("If I Had a Boat," "She's No Lady," "South Texas Girl" and so many more) that tend to be defined as country but frequently include elements of swing, folk, blues, roots and so many other styles that they're fundamentally uncategorizable. He's also dabbled in acting, racking up credits such as The Player, a 1992 Robert Altman movie where he met mega-star Julia Roberts, to whom he was briefly married, and The Bridge, an FX series in which he was cast because the creators behind the show wanted someone like Lyle Lovett and he happened to fit the bill.
Somehow, though, Lovett has remained the same idiosyncratic fellow who told us that he was "not exactly Mr. Showbiz" more than thirty years ago — and he believes the description still fits.
This anecdote kicks off a conversation in which Lovett remembers his first manager, longtime Denver promoter Chuck Morris, who accompanied him during his introduction to Red Rocks. From there, he talks about encounters with country-music greats who demonstrated what it's like to live without compromise, his casual compositional eclecticism, the way his songs spring to life (and the ones he chooses not to share), his love of vinyl in the digital age, the way he balances music and acting, his fondness for horses and an unusual equine sport, and a passion for photography he rediscovered when trying to navigate the complexities of social media.
He concludes by recalling an exchange with a member of the Red Rocks staff, who summed up what's great about the amphitheater in six hilarious words. Read them, and a few others, below.
Westword: Many years ago, one of my former colleagues, Robin Chotzinoff, interviewed you, and in the article, you were described as being "not exactly Mr. Showbiz." Do you remember that?
Lyle Lovett: I do. I said that, and the record company took that quote and made it part of a promotional offering to radio. They had these EPs they called "Not Exactly Mr. Showbiz."
My manager at the time was Chuck Morris in Denver, and Mark Bliesener, who was also in Denver, did publicity for Chuck's company. I was introduced by Chuck to Bruce Hinton, who ran MCA Nashville for Jimmy Bowen. Jimmy was the head of MCA Nashville, but Bowen spent most of his time in the studio, producing records, and Bruce Hinton ran the business of the company. My first album was out. and my attorney at the time was Ken Levitan, who went on to start Vector Management and go on to great success as a manager. But back then, he was my attorney, and he's the one who negotiated my record deal and helped me with everything.
I didn't have a manager, even though my first record was on the charts, and Bruce called me into his office one day. I used to go up to the record company all the time, and that was something I really enjoyed. I kind of felt like I worked there. I'd go there to do press, and I knew everybody who worked in the office, in every department. Anyway, Bruce called me into his office and said, "You need to get a manager. We need somebody we can work with."
I said, "Okay, all right." And he said, "I've got the perfect guy for you: Chuck Morris in Denver." And he started telling me about Chuck and said, "We'll fly you out there to meet him." And they did. They flew me out to Denver and Chuck picked me up at the airport in his old Mercedes sedan and drove me out to his house, which was south of town. The last couple of miles were on a gravel road. And then he took me up to Red Rocks, where John Fogerty was playing. This was the summer of 1986, and John Fogerty was playing, and it was a co-bill with Bonnie Raitt. It was Bonnie's Nine Lives tour. He took me up there — it was my first time to ever go to Red Rocks — and we hung out and watched some of the show, watched Bonnie, watched some of Fogerty. And I thought, he's a nice guy, and Bruce Hinton wants me to have a manager, so, okay. And that was that.
It was great fortune. It wasn't really by my design, but all these years later, Chuck has been one of our best promoters. He's one of the best promoters in the business, and he has us to Red Rocks or Fiddler's Green every year. And in the off-season, when I do the singer-songwriter shows that I do, he'll bring us to Colorado Springs or Fort Collins. We do all of our shows in Colorado with Chuck and AEG. He's been so loyal and so good to me all these years. And I stay in touch with Mark Bliesener, too. They're just good friends from the early days.
It's been more than thirty years since Robin's article was published, and you've had a very impressive career since then, in music as well as acting. So is that line no longer accurate? Are you now Mr. Showbiz?
[Laughs.] You know, I don't think so. I've always been fortunate to work with people who've allowed me to be myself — to record the songs I wanted to record and play the songs I wanted to play. I've never felt like I've been in the mainstream of real show business. I just feel I've been able to do my own little deal and been able to get away with it somehow, because people have supported me. People in the business have supported me and people in the audience have supported me.
I'm just so aware, especially after all these years, about how much I owe to the audience, to the people who show up. It's remarkable to me, and I'm just so grateful.
[Here's a video from one of Lovett's all-time crowd pleasers, "She's No Lady."]
Thanks to that support, have you been able to avoid the most annoying aspects of show business and concentrate on being an artist?
The joy of playing music is when you actually get to be on stage. There are aspects of doing this for a living that are more business-like. But I enjoy all of it. You get to talk to smart people, you get to work with smart people, people with ideas, people who are trying to help you. It's an enjoyable process. And I've been allowed to just be myself. What could be better than that? I don't have to really pretend in any aspect of my job. I get to walk out on stage and just be myself. It's really wonderful.
You come across performers occasionally who are sort of victims of their own success. Maybe they've recorded a song that became a big hit that they grow tired of playing over the years. But it's really important not to do anything you don't believe in or don't want to do. Because if it is successful and becomes a hit, you're stuck with having to do it.
I've never recorded a song I didn't want to record. I can't think of anything I've ever had to do in the business that I didn't actually want to do.
That's a remarkable testimonial. Can you think of another artist out there who could make that claim?
I'm sure there are other people who've been doing it for forty years and are happy doing it. After my first record came out, I had the good fortune of being able to meet some of the iconic country music performers in those days, including people who aren't here anymore. And I used to think, they've been around all these years and they've figured it out. They've figured out how to do it for them.
I met Willie Nelson early on. Waylon Jennings invited me to come over in 1986, and I went over and we sat in the front room of his office and talked for half an hour. He couldn't have been nicer. Johnny Cash: I got to give Johnny Cash's induction speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was so thrilled to meet my heroes like that — to be able to experience them in person and experience them as people. As an old music journalist from my college newspaper, it was just fascinating to me.
For an artist who's earned so much acclaim over the years, I'd think there would be a lot of Lyle Lovett imitators out there. But when I look around the current scene, I don't find anyone fitting that description.
[Laughs.] That tells you something about me.
Do you take pride in that?
I really do feel like my career has been kind of safely under the radar — which is not a bad thing. I've never been boxed in by a certain song or a certain type of success. And that's happened with the help of great people like Chuck Morris and Mark Bliesener and great radio stations like KBCO in Boulder, and grassroots people, word-of-mouth support from people in the audience. That's where my audience comes from: word of mouth.
I've never been popular enough for people to want to wear their hair like me.
Another thing you do that makes it tough on imitators is you draw from so many different musical sources. Do you ever see boundaries between different types of music? Or do you only see music that interests you, and it doesn't matter what label is on it?
There are no rules. I enjoy highlighting that. The songs I write reflect styles of music I enjoy. But really the style of the song and the arrangement really starts with the song itself. And if the song is best communicated in one way or another, that's the musical direction I go.
I've always been more of a word guy. My songs usually start out as lyrical ideas. Not that I write all the words first, but an idea for a song always starts with words. So I look for a form that will support that.
I get to work with such talented musicians. They can play anything in any kind of arrangement. In that way, it's fun for all of us, because we're not playing the same stuff all the time.
Your lyrics are so satisfying in part because they so often combine many different emotions and offer themselves up to multiple interpretations. Do you aspire to that as a writer? Or is it a happy side effect of the way you look at the world?
First of all, that's very kind of you to say. But I just try to write something that makes sense. The songs I end up playing on stage are songs that I feel get closest to lyrically expressing the idea. It's like you write to the idea, and the closer you get to matching up to the idea, the better the song is, in my opinion. The closer I get to the reason I'm trying to write the song in the first place, the better I like it. And those are the songs that usually end up on a record or that I play live.
I've written plenty of songs that missed the mark. And I just don't play those.
When you miss the mark, does it take you a while to realize it? A few years down the line, might you say, "I don't think that one works as well as I'd like"? Or do you know right away?
I know pretty quickly. I just don't tell people about them and I don't play them. And I definitely don't record them.
Do you have a writing regimen? Or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
It's a fairly undisciplined approach. I still play guitar for fun. Sitting around the house and picking up an acoustic guitar and noodling around is one of the most satisfying and consistent experiences of my life. It just makes you feel better about everything to be able to sit around in the morning with your first cup of coffee and play guitar. It's just a great way to start the day. That's where I've always come from — sitting around and playing guitar and noodling around without thinking, "I have to write a song today."
I assume one of the most asked questions you get involves when a new album might come along. Do you have something in the works? Or is it more a matter of realizing, "Hey, I've got enough songs. I'm going to put them together"?
I haven't recorded yet, but I do have new songs. I can't really announce who I'm talking to yet, because the deal's not done, but I'm in the middle of doing a deal with a record company. And I'm excited about making a new record.
Is there any trepidation about stepping out into what's clearly a very changed industry, in which CDs are becoming an endangered species? Or is that exciting for you?
Those are two different questions. There's no trepidation about working with a great record company and people who are interested in what you're doing and excited to be partners with you. I'm excited about that. And I feel as though I'm always trying to learn about the new delivery technology. I'm trying to embrace it in a way that allows me to engage the new technology and move forward and yet not dismiss the sort of technology that I still love and prefer myself. Like an LP, for example.
I still love vinyl. For my last record for MCA and Curb [2012's Release Me] — it fulfilled my record deal, finally — they partnered up with Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kansas. They do high-quality pressings, and we record everything at high-res, 96K. So we were able to do a 96K master, a reference for the vinyl. So the vinyl is actually higher resolution than the CD. The CD resolution is half that. I was really thrilled about that. We did it on heavy vinyl — and it took three sides to press. It was a double disc for what was one CD's worth of music, and we put a couple of tracks on the fourth disc at 45 RPM as kind of a bonus.
I buy music from iTunes. I haven't yet subscribed to any of the streaming services. I've certainly engaged with satellite services — played live on SiriusXM and all of that. But that's not yet how I consume music. I will look for a specific recording on iTunes and download that and have it on my computer and be able to listen to it. But I'm really fascinated and intrigued by where we're going as consumers.
Growing up in the '70s, going to college in the '70s, the thing to do was to become friends with the guy who had the best stereo. You could go to his house or his dorm room and listen to your favorite records on a really great stereo. I knew a guy who had some Klipsch speakers and a really high wattage Sherwood amplifier. I was like, "Whoa! That sounds amazing!"
We've traded resolution, quality, for convenience. That's across the board in the digital world. Digital quality is getting better and better. It's definitely trying to catch up. But the convenience! There are now entire generations of people whose entire mindset is toward the immediate and the convenience of being able to hear something as soon as you think of it. But they don't know what they're missing in terms of quality. They don't realize it. I find all that interesting. And I think people, when they're exposed to quality, they appreciate it, even if they don't know it's coming. They can hear the difference.
I just think you need to shine a light on all of that in a more deliberate way. It used to be that having a great stereo is something you aspired to. Now you need to show folks why they might want one — why you might want to listen to an LP. You ask, "Can you hear the difference?" And they'll say, "Oh, yeah. It sounds way better than just on my computer or through my earbuds." The interest in quality is still there.
Your albums are always a complete piece of work. A listener can tell that the sequencing and the programming is extremely important to you. Today we're in a period where individual songs are the focus as opposed to a longer form collection. Is that frustrating for you? Or do you feel that you can still present a larger work as opposed to a bunch of random singles?
Certainly you can. But I think it's really important not to instruct people about how to consume your product. Don't tell them how to do it. Just be grateful that they're interested in the first place. It's up to the consumer to decide how he or she wants to use your product.
I think it's important as a producer of a product to have it hold up however a consumer wants to engage it. But I always imagined, when I was in high school or college, that it was important to the artist to sequence the album in a certain way. I imagined that it was part of the artist's intention. And I think in a lot of way it was, and is. So that's always been really important to me. I think it's important to produce a record that does hold up as a complete work, but has songs on it that hold up individually as well.
My songs are like that, too. If someone is just letting the song go by in the air and is listening to it that way, I want the song to work on that level. But if somebody digs deeper into a lyric — if they're wondering, what does he mean by that? — I want it to actually mean something. I want it to work on any level that the listener chooses to engage. That's the idea.
It's a flimsy excuse to not be thorough in your work. You shouldn't say, "People don't listen that way anymore. There's no point in spending an extra day in the studio listening to ten different sequences, because people don't care." You can't do that. You have to do your work. It has to be right. And then it's up to the consumer, to the audience, how he or she responds to it. But you have to do your job first.
In addition to your music, you've been acting for decades. Do you actively pursue roles? Or do you wait for somebody to say, "I want that Lyle Lovett type in my show"?
That's the way it is. I've never actively pursued acting. I've always enjoyed it when I've gotten a chance to do it. I do it very rarely, and when I do, it's always when somebody thinks of me.
In the case of the FX series The Bridge a few years ago, the show runner, Elwood Reid, was in a meeting with some of the other actors, and he said, "We need somebody like Lyle Lovett." And my friend, [actor] Annabeth Gish, said, "Well, what about him?" [Laughs.]
That makes sense. There's no one more like you than you.
Yeah. And it was all thanks to Annabeth. She said, "There's a TV show you might be interested in." And I said, "Sure, I'll check it out." And I knew [actor] Ted Levine a little bit from going to horse shows. It was great fun to be part of that show — and that's how it's worked for me. I'd been with Monterey Peninsula Artists for a lot of years, and ten or fifteen years ago, they sold to Paradigm. So I have a theatrical agent, but I'm not going out and auditioning and that kind of thing. I couldn't be happier playing music. That's what I concentrate on. At the same time, it's nice if someone's interested in me and it works out with my schedule. But that's the hard part.
I still do 100 to 110 dates a year, and we kind of spread the dates out around the calendar. It's hard to take enough time away from that to really get involved in a film or a TV show.
You mentioned horses. I understand your main interest is in an event called reining horses. How would you describe that to folks who aren't familiar with it?
Reining is an event that's fifty years old. The National Reining Horse Association is of a similar age; I'm not sure exactly how many years it's been around. Cutting is sort of a Texas-centric event. Reining was developed in Ohio and Pennsylvania by horse owners who had cow-bred horses — in other words, horses that were bred with cow sense are able to work with cows in the same way that a border collie works with sheep. But it's become kind of a West Coast event.
For horses with cow sense, the expression is that the horse can "work that cow." In other words, it has that natural instinct to work the cow — and some horses don't, just like not all dogs can be a good sheepdog.
Reining with cow-bred horses is done in California, because they don't have the same opportunity to demonstrate cutting on cattle the way it's done in Texas. So they thought of a way to show the kind of athleticism a horse needs to work a cow, but to not have a cow be a part of the event. It's often described as a Western version of dressage, because it's a pattern. One horse in the ring at one time executing a prescribed pattern and prescribed maneuvers — and all of those maneuvers show the kind of athleticism a horse needs to work a cow. So there's stopping, there's moving back. It's a really exhilarating event, and as a rider, it's a test of your ability.
The horse is on a loose rein, and it must have a willing countenance. It shouldn't look as if you're forcing him to do anything. It needs to look like he's doing all of this willingly. But there's an amount of direction and control that you're able to exert with your legs, mainly. You're not doing a whole lot with your hands. You ride with one hand and the bigger the break there is in the rein, the more you're going to say the horse is willing. There's a real art and skill to doing it. And then, of course, the pros who are the best at it are like great musicians: They make it look easy. You watch one of the pros go through a pattern and think, I can do that. But then you get in there and try it and you think, holy smoke!
It's like anything that you pursue and are interested in. No matter how accomplished you might become. There's always more to learn, there's always somebody better, there's always somebody you want to sit down with and say, "Show me how you did that." It's the same kind of quality that draws you to anything. I don't play golf, but several of the guys in the band play golf, and they're excited, because they're going to get to play Castle Pines the day before the Red Rocks show. They've been talking about it the whole tour, and they're excited about it. And when I listen to them talk about their golf game, it's just the same way I feel when I'm at a horse event.
You also have an interest in photography, and one of the common themes on your Instagram page is taking photos of the venue where you're playing before the show. What fascinates you about those images? It is an interest in the architecture of the venue? Or do you like the contrast between all the empty seats and what they'll look like a few hours later, when all of them are filled?
I enjoy showing the theaters from a different viewpoint. Most people see the theaters from the opposite point of view. I enjoy showing them from our point of view, what we're looking out to. But the idea of taking those photos really came from John Hagen, my bandmate since 1979. At soundcheck, he would set his camera on a long exposure setting on the stage, just sitting on the floor, and take shots, and he would occasionally post one. I thought, what a nice way to be able to talk about our shows.
Social media is important in helping get the word out at this point. You kind of have to do it. But I thought, I don't want to take a bunch of pictures of myself or post promotional photo after promotional photo. I thought, what can I do that allows me to talk about what we're doing, and to thank the audience for coming? What can I do to make that feel a little less self-conscious? That's why I started doing it. But the idea for doing it really came from my buddy John.
Do you expect to take a similar shot prior to your Red Rocks show?
Oh, yeah. I always do. I've posted Red Rocks photos. But Red Rocks is a little bit difficult to post. I think part of the beauty of those shots is that the theaters are empty. I do like seeing that. Sometimes people will post comments saying, "I guess nobody showed up," just to be funny.
At Red Rocks, because it's a state park, people are drifting in and out. It's a little bit hard to get a completely clean picture. It's a little bit of a challenge.
You could have people doing yoga in your shot, or having a picnic.
As long as they hold still for thirty seconds, it's fine [laughs]. Actually, at Red Rocks, I don't have to do as long an exposure. Most of the photos I take inside theaters are thirty-second exposures.
I was a journalism major, so I took photo classes, and I enjoy taking pictures. That's my favorite thing about social media. It's given me a reason to take my camera out of the bag and shoot. It's given me more of a focus. I do enjoy it.
What else are you looking forward to about the show?
I'm excited to meet Margo Price. I've never met her. And Red Rocks is such a phenomenal atmosphere. There's a lady who works security at Red Rocks, and she's done it for years. I don't ever remember not seeing her there. She's always there at the stage door when we walk in. A couple of times ago, we got there. and the band and I were walking in, and she said, "Welcome back to Red Rocks." And I said, "Thanks. We're happy to be here. It's just our favorite place to play." And she looked at me and said, "It's everybody's favorite place to play." [Laughs.] I thought, that's about right.
It's an extraordinary setting, but I think what makes it everybody's favorite outdoor venue in the world is that it sounds really good. The way the sound comes back to the stage, it's just a good-sounding place. Even though it's the size it is, even though it can hold eight- or nine-thousand people, it sounds like you're playing to 100 people. It makes it seem like everyone is right there with you. It's a great feeling, and a very intimate one.