Lyle Lovett remains best known as the hangdog fellow with the stack of hair who somehow snagged Julia Roberts as a wife in 1993 (they amicably divorced two years later). The same year, he was a stark presence in Robert Altman's Short Cuts as the stone-faced baker who stalks a couple whose little boy, killed in a car accident, has failed to collect his birthday cake. Even Lovett's long musical career is known for his brief part in the 1980s new country wave, which included Steve Earle and kd lang, and for the way he abandoned it to make big band, bluegrass and jazz music, too.
The real Lyle Lovett exists first in his songs, spare and chiselled like Cole Porter or Hank Williams. From the New Jersey woman who trails after a cowboy barefoot, and the infidelities that open like trapdoors on his early records, to the oblique commentaries on fame and sex of It's Not Big It's Large (2007), it's intense, sometimes shocking stuff.
Then there's the Lovett who tells me that the proudest achievement of his career may be using its rewards to keep the farm his family has owned in Klein, Texas since 1850. He still lives there. He's on his way to inspect a wounded bull when I speak to him about his first London show in some years. His dad's death caused the cancellation of a 1999 gig. A 2003 date was cancelled when, protecting his uncle from a raging bull, he was impaled on its horns himself.
This gentlemanly, intellectual small-town song-writing great, usually seen in a suit on stage, is plainly more of a real cowboy than his Nashville peers. But debauchery and clichéd rebellion are not his way. Though he writes songs that look unblinkingly at the bizarreness of humanity, he remains rooted in his Texan family and soil. "South Texas Girl", on It's Not Big It's Large, is a near-Proustian reverie on childhood memories. It's a rare example in the rock age of the potency of conservative values and domestic happiness.
"My grandfather was one of eight children, and the only one who stayed home on the farm and kept it going," he explains. "And I'm part of his legacy. To be home with my mom, go out with my uncle and see how his cows are doing – when I'm not out playing shows, it's what I'm proudest of, and enjoy most." Lovett looks out at the rural landscape his family has called home since before the Civil War with emotions most itinerant musicians will never have. "I feel my whole life," he says simply. "I feel I'm where I'm supposed to be."
Lovett's adolescence began as the 1960s was ending and rock reached its peak of disruptive intent. That was never for him. "I was more interested in the music than the social commentary. And then, as I became older, I gravitated away from the popular songs on the radio, to singer-songwriters like [rowdy Texan greats] Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. And later, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Ry's records taught me you don't have to play one style of music."
Lovett's musical education began in Nashville in 1978, under the wing of Clark. "Listening to him and Townes showed me what a song could be; that it should have an idea worth demanding someone's attention. I felt alternately privileged and scared to death to be in the room with Guy. To watch him think, and wonder what he was thinking. Guy passed my tape around Nashville before I ever met him. He looked out for me, without ever letting me know. I always felt safe with him."
Altman was another crucial influence. Their collaboration went far beyond Short Cuts, lasting through the six films the director made from The Player (1992) to his death. "What Altman shows us in each and every one of his films is that he cuts through the pretence of all of us," Lovett says. "Altman was brilliant at showing what a person's true motivation was. He was the same in conversation. The grace of Altman is that he would give you that feeling that he could see right through all of your bullshit. And then accept you for who you were." The description could be one of Lovett's lyrics. "I think about Altman all the time," he says. "I really miss him."
Lovett's diverse adventures in pre-rock pop styles began with his third album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (1989). You can still find him in the upper reaches of the US country charts, and he has four country Grammys. "I've always been given a very free hand creatively by the risk-takers in Nashville," he says. "I never had such a commercial hit in any particular direction that I was asked to repeat it. My old producer used to tease me that I wouldn't cross over, I'd cross under. People who don't listen to country look at me as a country singer. And people who do listen to it, don't think of me that way. After all these years, I still feel in between. It's a fine place to be. Don't tell anybody," he laughs. "I might get away with it a bit longer..."
One recent song, "This Traveling Around", suggests the touring musical life that brings him to London tomorrow may one day be the death of him. "That song's more a statement of resolve, a show of confidence," he corrects me. "That this is what I'm going to do, until I'm done."
Lyle Lovett plays the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 tomorrowReuse content