Lyle Lovett has recorded gold records, acted in films and traveled the world playing music.
But the lanky Texan says his greatest joy is rescuing the family homestead from developers.
“Most of the place was sold by the family in 1980 before the bottom dropped out of the oil market,” said 49-year-old Lovett, who shares the 200-acre spread with his mother, his uncle and several head of cattle in Klein, Texas, about 28 miles north of Houston.
“I was able to buy it back from the investment group that bought it. I’ve put most of it back together, and for me that’s been my greatest accomplishment.”
In many ways, Lovett’s music is an extension of his home and his family. On the new album, “It’s Not Big It’s Large,” he sings in “South Texas Girl” of cruising the back roads with his parents in a ’58 Fairlane: “But now looking back, it seems like it was everything, singing with Mom, just so we could hear ourselves sing.”
Like most of his work, the album — which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard country chart, the best showing of his career — is an amalgamation of country, folk, rock, gospel, jazz and blues. The title, “It’s Not Big It’s Large,” is a nod to his 17-piece Large Band and their flirtations with big band jazz.
“Writing songs is part of my daily life and really a reaction to my day-to-day life,” Lovett says. “For me, writing is just an exercise in trying to figure everything out.”
Playful, eclectic and subtleHis tunes are often playful, eclectic and subtle. His friend, fellow Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely, says he heard Lovett’s 1988 song “L.A. County” several times before he realized it was a murder ballad.
“He takes a situation and puts people in the same conversation or the same room with all the subtle things that are said. It’s never a big thing. It’s the little things that make the songs so entertaining because everyone can relate to it. They either want to have said what was said in the song, or they have already said it at some time in their lives,” Ely says.
Over the last 18 years, Lovett has toured occasionally with Ely, Guy Clark and John Hiatt in a stripped-down songwriters show. Hiatt says Lovett’s country songs are more authentic than most anything coming out of Nashville.
“He’s from Texas and has that tradition of growing up with all that stuff, plus listening to people like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and the great storyteller tradition of the Southwest. He’s so steeped in that,” Hiatt says.
Lovett’s 1986 debut produced a few hits on country radio, but by his second album, 1988’s “Pontiac,” he was delving deeper into the jazzy arrangements and edgy lyrics that steered him from the mainstream.
In 1993, he married actress Julia Roberts after they met on the set of director Robert Altman’s film, “The Player,” the first of several movie appearances for him. The marriage lasted about two years and drew intense publicity. To this day, he doesn’t discuss it publicly.
While he’s still tagged a country artist, Lovett’s music is far more at home on alternative radio than on country stations.
Former MCA Records Nashville chief Tony Brown, who signed him to the label and helped produce his first three albums, says Lovett’s voice was smooth, distinct and every bit as accessible as Garth Brooks or Vince Gill, but his songs were anything but.
“Some of the songs, like ‘She’s No Lady,’ there were a few press things that said he was a misogynist. So he had to fight that,” Brown recalls. “If you go through all those records, there were songs in there that lyrically were outside the boundaries of what most country press or country radio wanted to play.”
All that’s fine by Lovett, who says he’s thankful he makes the record company enough money that they let him keep his job, but not so much that they’re overly concerned with the way he does it.
He tours steadily with His Large Band and releases new material every three or four years.
And of course, whenever possible, he heads home.
“Nothing is more important than family, and it makes me feel really good to keep that place together. My mom will be 78 in November and my uncle Calvin 73 in October. To be there with them and have a place we all can use and enjoy ... it gives me a good feeling.”