Growing up in the remote town of Spring, Texas, Lyle Lovett regularly visited clubs outside Houston to hear songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Willis Alan Ramsey. Lovett has said that he first saw Michael
Martin Murphey play in 1975, when his song "Wild Fire" was a giant hit, and Lovett expected Murphey to play more urban-cowboy fare. Instead, he watched Murphey on stage simply strumming his guitar, singing, and telling stories. "Man, I wish I could do that," Lovett said to himself.
Paramount Theater, Saturday, October 3
"He was listening to us really well," says Steve Fromholz, who wrote "Bears," the opening track on Lovett's new two-CD set Step Inside This House, a collection of 21 songs written by revered Texas songwriters. Fromholz considers the album a brave move: "Lyle didn't have to do this," he notes. "He's got plenty of his own songs to record."
Fromholz has just returned from two nights at New York's Bottom Line, where the surviving songwriters—including Michael Martin Murphey, Eric Taylor, and Robert Earl Keen—"swapped songs" with Lovett on stage. "We've been friends for years and years," Fromholz says of the group. "There's a lot of love and respect between us."
Lovett was a fan first, even interviewing some of these artists as a journalism student at Texas A&M. Now the Grammy-winning Lovett is tipping his hat to the predecessors and peers who inspire him: critically acclaimed members of the mighty tradition of Texas songwriters. Lovett is reaching out as if to pull them from the obscurity he could have languished in himself, repaying his teachers for the gift of their songs. It's a distinctive selection, "an inventory," as he puts it, of his musical beginnings.
"We share a raconteurship," says Fromholz about the Lone Star State's grand musical heritage. "We all like to tell a good story—and never let the truth get in the way, as it's said," he adds.
Fromholz wrote "Bears" during a road trip from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to East Texas, inspired at a truck stop after hearing an elderly codger yell, "Hell, there ain't no bears in Arkansas." He jumped into the passenger seat and cranked out the song during the seven-hour drive to a show, then played it that very same night.
The delightful song suggests taking a bear to lunch; its wry whimsy works on a number of levels, so it perfectly suits Lovett. "Lyle has done other sci-fi bluegrass," Fromholz says with a chuckle. The line "I just bear up to my bewildered best" sounds especially appropriate after you've seen Lovett's deadpan acting in the recent movie The Opposite of Sex or if you imagine him roaring along a Texas highway on his Ducati motorcycle. His disarming charm belies the craggy face that resembles a 70-year-old from a Dorothea Lange photograph, not to mention his string-bean frame and wiry hair. Soft, sweet, and sensitive, Lovett's voice evokes images of busted towns and empty plains; the sun setting like a curtain; long-haul semis like stainless-steel stallions. His aching vocals, delicate phrasing, and inventive style always work whether performing progressive country, classical folk, swing, jazz, or blues.
Singing the title track by Guy Clark, "Step Inside This House," Lovett invites the listener into his heart through his ears. "They're all songs that I wish I had written," Lovett said recently in The Austin Chronicle. "It's really gratifying if people discover great Texas music from what I'm doing." Lyrically reflective, melancholy, and bittersweet or clever, ironic, and amusing, the songs easily fit his repertoire. "Lyle sings so true to how we wrote them, I'm tickled," says Fromholz. "I'd gotten cavalier with the melody. I'd forgotten how I wrote 'Texas Trilogy' back in '69."
Each of the songwriters whose work appears on Step Inside This House has a similar career trajectory with hints of cult notoriety. Fromholz, for example, has been kicking around Texas since the '60s with the Dallas Country Jug Band, Michael Murphey Trio, Frummox, and Manassas, as well as recording for Michael Nesmith's and Willie Nelson's labels. He's also released solo efforts, including 1969's A Rumor in My Own Time, in a style referred to as "outlaw country."
The record is dedicated to the memory of two songwriters whose work is heavily represented on the second disc: Walter Hyatt, who died in the '96 Valujet crash, and Townes Van Zandt, who died last New Year's. In Hyatt's "Teach Me About Love," lyrics flow effortlessly: "I've had enough lonesome in my education... if I want to be blue I've got enough information."
After a couple of warm-up dates in Sparks, Nevada, Lovett launches the West Coast leg of his tour in Seattle, at the Paramount Theater. Fromholz is on stage this weekend at the Paramount in Austin, appearing in The Night Hank Williams Died, a play by Larry L. King, the journalist who wrote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Fromholz says he likes the instant gratification of musical theater, where success is more easily defined than it is in the songwriting arena. He's recording a new album and shopping for a deal, believing that things are "on a roll now and kicked open."
Step Inside This House is more than exposure for these longtime Texas singer-songwriters. Lovett enjoys the excuse to perform these songs. Most of all, though, he honors the writers by cherishing each note and word. Lovett used to open their shows. Now he's returning the favor.