You say you’re not from Texas
Man as if I couldn’t tell
You think you pull your boots on right
And wear your hat so well
So pardon me my laughter
‘Cause I sure do understand
Even Moses got excited
When he saw the promised land
— from “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)”
These above lyrics could only be written by a true Texan, and there are not a lot of songwriters who are more truly Texan than Lyle Lovett.
That’s not to say that he exactly fits the bill for what the rest of the world might think a Texan is. For instance, he wears tailor-made suits when he performs — not Wranglers and a big hat. He often performs with a brass section and soulful backup singers — not your basic honky-tonk combo. And his songs don’t usually conform to the basic prison, mama, trains and getting drunk themes. Instead, they’re somewhere to the left of left with tales about funeral parlor directors moonlighting as caterers and poisoning guests at a party in order to get new business.
But what Lovett does have is Texas Tradition. With a capital “T.” Three generations of it, to be exact. And make no mistake about it, Texas Tradition is something that you can’t come by easily. It’s something you have to inherit.
What follows are excerpts from a conversation I had with Lyle in 1998 aboard his bus backstage at Michael Martin Murphey’s West Fest.
Do you feel like you’re in control of a song as you’re writing, or do they tend to lead you?
You know, it’s always different, but that’s a really good question because sometimes a song does lead you. Sometimes a song will change the original idea or intention.
Do you remember an example of a song that did lead you?
“L.A. County” was a song like that for me. That was not a fully formed idea when I started making up the verses. And I made that song up all in one afternoon. But it just sort of presented itself. The end of that song and the plot that’s sort of the punch line of that song was not something that I originally intended. I don’t know what I originally intended. I was just sort of telling the story and it ended up like that.
How did you approach a song like “If I Had A Boat?”
I don’t know, I think songs like that approach you. I remember being at home just playing the guitar that morning and I sort of played the chorus. But other songs are more crafted than that or take longer to work on. A song like “Here I Am” with the sort of non-sequitur verses. I didn’t intend for that to be a song — I mean, I didn’t intend for it to be anything for a long time. But I would jot down these little sort of silly verses and then months later I thought, “you know, I should actually put this together.”
One of your gifts is that for story songs. How do you approach those? With “L.A. County” you said that you didn’t know where it was going, but what about “The Last Time,” or “Church,” or “First Mistake.” Do you approach those as a complete story?
Not always. The “Church” song is another example of not knowing quite where it was going. But there’s a feeling when you’re on to an idea and you’re making something up, there’s a feeling that’s almost a momentum that carries you that I find pushes me into the next verse. It’s not really a matter of doing an outline. And you know in school we were always taught to do an outline, and I never did that. I’d always make up my outline after I finished whatever it was that I was writing. And that’s the fun of writing and making something up — kind of getting inside of it and letting it carry you through.
Thanks for mentioning those songs. The kinds of songs that I admire are narrative. Not necessarily overtly narrative. Those songs that you mentioned are point A to B kind of things, but good writing has a narrative quality. A song like Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” is narrative. It’s not just a rhetorical question in the second verse when he says “you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes.” All of the sudden you see two people who’ve been up all night.
It’s such a shame that the music business doesn’t have more faith in its audience sometimes. When Don Williams and Emmylou Harris recorded that song — which is a wonderful version — they changed the lyric “Loop and Lil agreed” to “Who could ill agree.” And it’s such a shame that a producer or somebody thought that “Loop and Lil” was too specific. But “Loop and Lil agreed,” all of the sudden you see these two people who’ve been up all night, and it’s a man and a woman who had been in this house. That’s narrative. You get that from the song, but it’s not a story as such. It’s a snapshot of somebody’s life. And that’s real. You know that Townes wrote that about a woman. And that’s what makes good songs. Songs that are about something real.
The Michael Martin Murphey song “Southwestern Pilgrimage,” he wrote after his breakup with his first wife, and it’s a song he doesn’t play anymore. But what an accurate portrayal of what you go through. It’s not somebody sitting around saying, “okay, I’m gonna write a divorce song.” This guy lived that. That’s what makes great songs.
—By Lydia Hutchinson