Lyle Lovett’s band is more than large. It’s luminous and luscious. At a time when most pop-concert touring groups can squeeze into a VW Bug, Lovett will have 17 musicians and singers backing him – his familiar contingent capable of raising the roof off Overture Hall or easing it back into place.
Lovett returns Thursday night to Madison, one of his favorite stops. How much does Lovett like Madison? He still recalls fondly the audience’s support when he opened here at a club show 20 years ago for Bonnie Raitt. Now 48, Lovett, who has played nearly one dozen memorable Madison shows, knows the city well enough to savor a pre-show chocolate malt at Mickies Dairy Bar.
Speaking by phone Monday, Lovett displayed his trademark wry wit, modesty and never-ending politeness. It’s not an act. He doesn’t boast, either — and avoided mentioning that Robert Altman originally wanted Tom Waits and him for the singing cowboy roles in the movie version of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Scheduling conflicts forced the duo to decline.
Is songwriting still a passion?
Lovett: I enjoy songwriting as much as I ever have. Writing is something I do all the time. We put out a live record. And the record “Step Inside This House” was a double record. That was a very important project to me; it was a way for me to pay tribute to songwriters who got me interested in music. Compiling work I did for films was important to me. It’s not about the songwriting process being more difficult or less enjoyable. And we always tour.
How is your leg? Are there any lingering problems? (Lovett broke it in 40 places when a bull hit him on his Texas farm in 2002.)
Lovett: I’m so lucky. It’s healed up. The only thing that I don’t do now that I used to do is run. I always ran for exercise. I’d run 10K (6.2-mile races) or half-marathons. I can’t run for exercise anymore. I can do everything else.
I was at a wedding where the DJ played “Nobody Knows Me.” I’ve also heard it played on a TV show as a love song. But you have one subtle but clear line in the song that the relationship is over.
Lovett: It is a cheating song! … But if somebody expresses an interest in one of my songs, I don’t try explaining to them why they shouldn’t be interested. I draw the conclusion that they don’t quite get it. Or who knows, maybe they do. We shouldn’t judge the emotional state of newlyweds. I’ve heard that people play “She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife)” at their wedding.
Is it true you recorded the song “Chicago” for an upcoming animated film “Everybody’s Hero”?
Lovett: Yes. It was great fun. Chris Botti was the artist on that. He asked me to do the vocal. You walk through the hallways and record in Capitol Studios and there are pictures of Frank Sinatra and you realize the history there. It makes you feel like doing something.
You’re so connected with Texas. I’ve been to San Antonio and other big cities and some small towns. The big cities are congested and the rest is dusty. Can you explain the appeal?
Lovett: (laughs) It’s one of those things that you either get or you don’t … There is an independent spirit that transcends the urbanization of our world it seems like. Even people who are not from our state and move to Texas seem to take it on as well.
Do you have any strong feelings about the Dixie Chicks’ dilemma?
Lovett: I have an immense amount of respect for the Dixie Chicks personally and for their music. Natalie’s Dad, (songwriter-producer) Lloyd Maines, was very kind to me when I was 19 and 20 years old and playing clubs in Texas. I’ll never forget that. When someone extends a hand to you when you’re young and starting out, you always appreciate that. … Freedom of speech is one of the basic tenants of our culture. I have no problem with the Chicks saying whatever they want to.
I saw you perform almost 20 years ago when Mary-Chapin Carpenter, an unknown then, was your opening act. Did you have any idea at the time about how your career would develop?
Lovett: I didn’t. I always think about trying to do the best I can at whatever I’m doing at the moment. I’ve approached my life that way. From that, good things will happen. It’s not a matter of strategy. It’s not a matter of where do I want to be in five years. It’s what am I doing right this minute. How can I make tonight’s show the best it can be? That’s what it’s about every day.