Though he doesn't exactly look the part, singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett portrays a Pasadena policeman in "The Player," director Robert Altman's new Hollywood satire. Being self-aware enough to know that he doesn't exactly exude heavy Jack Webb vibes, the thin, soft-spoken Lovett--a novice actor hired for the movie after the director saw him perform at the Greek Theatre two years ago--asked Altman before the shoot if perhaps, well, maybe he should take some acting lessons.
"He said, 'Nah, that'll just screw you up. Just come and hang out and get to know everybody. Besides, this guy you're playing, he's not from Hollywood but he's hanging around these Hollywood people and trying to act cool, and he's not a very good actor.' " Lovett enjoys a good chuckle over this seemingly impromptu bit of character motivation provided by Altman. "He told me that just to try to put me at ease about doing it."
When on his own turf (the concert stage), Lovett isn't any more of a Webb figure when telling the offbeat stories he often uses to introduce his narrative songs; his halting, comically laconic storytelling style is so far from a \o7 just the facts, ma'am\f7 approach that you might assume the tales he spins are apocryphal, the offbeat narrative lyrics pure conjecture.
"Oh, that's really not true at all," he retorts. "It \o7 is\f7 conjecture, or it's an embellishment, for sure, but usually it comes out of some sort of . . . I mean, I don't make up the stories." Another chuckle. "I try to make 'em funny, but they're true."
Lovett's fourth album, "Joshua Judges Ruth" (go ahead, look 'em up in the Old Testament table of contents, but don't be long now), has not only its share of humor and truth but a remarkably fine mixture of blues, folk, swing, country and gospel besides to recommend it. Somehow the creator of its untraditional blend of disparate traditional strains and its sub-dry wryness couldn't have come from anywhere but Texas.
"The kind of humor that I grew up with, it's real subtle," says Lovett, snacking on strawberries at a West Hollywood hotel near the Roxy, where he and his Large Band had a sold-out four-night stand last week. The band heads to Anaheim tonight for a performance at the Celebrity Theatre. "Southern humor," Lovett continues, "it's very clever, and there's a lot of unspoken, understated kind of stuff. I think my songs reflect that. That's what I'm trying to do--kind of capture the spirit of that kind of humor that I grew up with."
But to peg Lovett as strictly or even mostly a humorist would be to pass over the many touching, laughless songs in his repertoire, and the knife-like digs that show up even in the lighter ones. Off-screen, a major musical "player" in his own right, the lanky Texan is a highly effective detective of the human condition.
The songs are "not self-revealing in a way that makes me uncomfortable, just self-revealing in a way that, I would hope, demonstrates an understanding of how people feel about things. It's not like this really too-personal thing. I hope I'm not telling people more than they want to know! It's really (about) the way people feel about things and react to them, that's all.
"Like a story like 'L.A. County' (from the second album, "Pontiac")--it's about this sick guy who goes out and kills these people, but because the song is written from his point of view, you almost have some compassion for him."
And, yes, if you believe his song introductions, "L.A. County" did stem from his own homicidal inclinations once upon a time toward a woman who left him to marry a man out West Coast way. "They're divorced now," he told the Roxy audience, and he feels fine, really, about the whole thing these days.
On the less murderous side, Lovett has a song on the new album called "Flyswatter/Ice Water Blues" that he describes as "actually a tender song about spending the last few minutes of the morning with your husband or wife before they leave for work."
Reminded that he doesn't have too many other sweet, heartfelt love songs--sans twists, anyway--in his four-album \o7 ouerve\f7 , he responds: "That's my first one. I'm making progress, I think."
Given the twisted quality of much of his writing, it may seem surprising that Lovett cites James Taylor as a big influence. Less surprising are more character-driven writers like Randy Newman. Lovett's own tack--nonfiction through an eccentric filter--lies somewhere in the middle, with a rootsier, earthier, genre-crossing musical base.
"I enjoy country music from the standpoint of songwriting. I feel like I draw from very traditional forms of music in general--blues and country and these gospel arrangements on the new album. I mean, I'm not pushing any kind of musical boundaries, but I work with these forms that allow for a certain way to express an idea.