Today, the 64-year-old Lovett even jokes, saying he should “play a lot better than I do” given how early and how often he played guitar as a young person. As a kid, he also took piano lessons, but the memory of those juxtapose his guitar studies. His teacher, who was a nice enough lady, he says, was also stricter and less forgiving than Mr. Woods. “The lessons were not as much fun,” Lovett admits. In fact, he’d go to them early to shoot baskets with his teacher’s son and when he’d come in for his lessons with dirty fingernails, she’d scold him. Mr. Woods helped Lovett want to pursue music, beginning from age 8 and throughout his life. Sadly, Mr. Woods passed away about a decade ago, but he and Lovett stayed in touch over the years.
“My music teachers all had different influences on me,” Lovett says. “Mr. Woods helped to further my love of playing.”
Another teacher, a guy named Freddie, introduced Lovett to the music of Chet Atkins. The two would listen to records on a turntable and Freddie would slow them down to half speed, picking up chord choices, fingerings, and arrangements. Later, that yeoman’s work ethic paid off when Lovett, after releasing his first album (Lyle Lovett) and before releasing his second (Pontiac), met Atkins.
“I was standing around backstage at the CMA Awards in Nashville,” he says. “All of a sudden, there I was, inches away from Chet Atkins. He was so cool. He introduced himself as I didn’t know who he was. And I told him I was a big fan, that I listened to so many of his records.”
Atkins asked Lovett who it was who played guitar on one of his songs, “Cowboy Man.” Lovett told him the name of his electric lead player. But Atkins said no, who played acoustic? Lovett nervously said he did, to which Atkins said, after a pause and looking right at Lovett, “Nice thumb.” Meaning, that Lovett was doing good work with his thumb on the acoustic, something he’d picked up while studying Atkins, himself.
“I just thought,” Lovett says today, “that’s all I need right there. ‘Okay, anything that happens after this is just gravy.’
Born in Texas, Lovett attended Texas A&M as a college student. He’d play gigs around town. He studied German and journalism. The area shaped him like an ocean shapes a fish. Thankfully, for Lovett, since Houston is one of America’s largest cities, there was a diversity of music everywhere. There was a radio station for everything, Top 40, deep album cuts, rock, country, soul, and gospel. He can still rattle off radio call letters like KILT and KLOL. He’d listen to Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Ray Charles, Ray Price, Michael Murphey, Nanci Griffith, and more. But what he was drawn to most of all was the musicians who distilled their efforts down as much as possible. He loved singer-songwriters. Just a player and a guitar. He gravitated to small music clubs that offered that feeling.
“To see a performer orchestrate his or her emotion with just a single instrument,” he says, “was something that really appealed to me. To have that emotional impact with just an instrument.”
For Lovett, the way you do one thing is essentially the way you do anything. One boils down any action to the essential qualities of who they are. This is how he thinks about his relationship to horseback riding and reining competitions. Everything is connected, he says. The same motivation that inspires you to play music is the same that pushes you in other life endeavors. For him, that’s horses. You’re not competing with the world, you’re competing with yourself. It’s all about the process, not the destination. These are the ideas and platitudes he believes in today as “a wise old man.” It’s about appreciating the vastness of a subject just as you are: a singular being.
“Distill it down to its bare minimum,” Lovett says. “To its essence.”
For Lovett, who is a talented frontman, he’s also a talented and respected actor. But he treats them with different perspectives, in a way. As a musician, he’s the leader. As an actor, he’s a supporter. Both are about the process of creating and accessing emotion, but they are nevertheless different roles. To have a job or jobs rooted in imagination is a true privilege for him, he says. That he gets to be “peaking in the windows of acting” is especially special.
“I try to serve someone else’s vision,” he says. “In music, no one will hire me to ‘be a guy in the band’ because I don’t play well enough!”
Lovett likes to pretend. In a way, he’s mystified that he gets to do it still, either as an actor or as a musician, trying to come up with rhymes and songs from thin air. He expresses great gratitude when talking about these realities. And Lovett very much still gets to do it. His latest LP, 12th of June, is a remarkable album, as diverse as it is rich with talent. It begins with a big band but songs weave from the tender titular track to the humorous “Pants is Overrated.” The genesis of the eclectic album, which includes a few covers of standards, began with the pandemic. Lovett wanted, in a way, to reintroduce his audience to all he and his band could do. He also wanted to give fans a chance to hear songs on the record that he’d often play live. Now, though, with the album out, Lovett is embarking on a big 61-show tour, 21 of which will be with the legendary artist Chris Isaak, including one in Las Vegas on Saturday (June 18) at The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las vegas.
“I’ve known Chris for years,” Lovett says. “The idea for this tour came about—we did a live stream during the pandemic together. So, we cooked up this idea doing tour dates together. I’m excited about that.”
But in the end for Lovett, it’s all about the music, the art, and the pursuit of creation, even if it’s not about the product itself. He’s won multiple Grammy Awards, been married to a movie star, and worked with acclaimed directors. Yet, still, his reverence for song is unwavering—just as it was as a child with Mr. Woods. He talks about the legendary singer Towns Van Zandt, who would speak of “sky songs,” or songs that just fell from the sky and ended up in the writer’s hand. Music, Lovett says, is inside everyone. As such, no two days in his life are ever the same—it’s a gift.
“What would the world be without music?” he says. “I’m so grateful for it.”
Photo by Michael Wilson / Sacks & Co.