Belfast Telegraph

You gotta Lovett

Lyle Lovett is one of American music’s most enigmatic figures. Andrew Johnston tracked down the singer-songwriter — and former husband of Julia Roberts — ahead of his Belfast concert next week

To describe Lyle Lovett as elusive would be an understatement, given the two weeks 24/7 spent chasing him for an interview. The first phone chat, ahead of his European tour, was cancelled. A new date was arranged — but Lyle stopped answering his manager’s texts.

So began a game of cat and mouse once the star had reached Europe. Copenhagen Helsinki Oslo Stockholm Lovett stayed one cowboy-booted step ahead of any attempts to pin him down. In the end, his very apologetic manager set up an email interview — though no prizes for guessing what was off the agenda.

The country music star may have recorded 10 albums and 22 singles (winning four Grammy Awards in the process) and created an acclaimed body of work, ranging from folk and blues to Texas swing. Yet for many people Lovett remains most famous for his brief marriage to Hollywood actress Julia Roberts (below).

There is certainly no lack of a sense of humour in the star — he made a guest appearance in the country music spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story — but he is nevertheless reluctant to discuss the relationship that made him tabloid fodder in the mid ’90s.

The 52-year-old will talk about his love of motorcycles and his fondness for horses. He can enthuse about the artists who influenced him — Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt — and will even joke about the bizarre accident in 2002, when he was rammed by a bull on his uncle’s farmyard.

But Julia is a no-no.

Lovett and Roberts met in 1992 on the set of Robert Altman’s The Player (the musician also worked on four other Altman movies — Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, Cookie’s Fortune and Dr T & the Women). After a three-week romance, the couple eloped and married in June 1993, but divorced less than two years later, in March 1995.

To discover more about the relationship, fans have pored over Lovett’s lyrics. In God Will from 1986’s self-titled debut, he sang about an unforgiving lover who has been cheated on (“I thought he was just right,” Lyle says). The following year’s Pontiac album included LA County, which Lovett introduced at gigs as: “The old story — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy shoots girl.”

His background too perhaps provides some idea of the mysterious nature of the man. Lovett was raised a Lutheran in Klein, suburban Houston. The town was named after the singer’s great-great-grandfather, German immigrant Adam Klein. An only child, both Lovett’s parents worked in the oil industry and he still lives in Klein, in the house once owned by his grandmother.

Lovett majored in journalism at Texas’s prestigious A&M University, so he certainly knows how to handle the press — and deftly steers the topic away from Roberts on to more comfortable ground, such as his regard for the late Altman, who gave him his break in the film world.

“He just called me up and asked me if I wanted to be in the movies,” says Lyle. “I knew who he was, of course. I was the only guy in my school who’d seen M*A*S*H — heck, I was the only guy in my school who’d seen an R-rated movie.

“He was such a supremely confident person and director. He was happy for anyone to watch him do anything he did. I just found that to be extraordinary, and rare. Most people don’t have the confidence to be that open.”

On February 16, Lovett and fellow US cult star John Hiatt will open up to their Ulster followers in a special acoustic concert at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

Both are promoting new products — Lovett’s Natural Forces album was released last October while Hiatt’s The Open Road is out in March — but the format is decidedly old-fashioned. The pair will perform as a duo, trading songs and stories.

Hiatt, whose career has spanned more than 30 years and whose songs have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop, says the shows are a welcome break from the rigours of touring with a full band. “The idea was to make it an informal evening,” he says.

“The audience really take to it, because it’s so informal — a relaxing presentation. We never know what we’re going to play. There are some songs we do together — I’ll play guitar on some of his stuff, and he’ll sing on some of my stuff — but generally it’s different every night.

“I’ll play a song about a dog, then he’ll play a song about a truck that ran a dog over — that kind of stuff!”

Lovett and Hiatt have toured together regularly since October 1989 (“At least once a year,” says Hiatt). Lyle first saw John play in 1981 at Austin’s Paramount Theater. At the time, Hiatt was the veteran and Lovett an up-and-coming singer. “I thought he was a great guitar player,” remembers Lyle. “He had tremendous energy.”

The Lovett-Hiatt partnership is obviously a successful one, but according to John the relationship ends onstage. He reveals that, despite more than two decades of joint touring, Lyle remains a mystery man.

“We don’t spend any time together except when we play,” he says, “but we quite enjoy each other’s company onstage.”

On Natural Forces, Lovett pays his respects to songwriters from the Lone Star State. The album — his second such recording, after 1998’s Texas homage Step Inside this House — features mainly material by artists who inspired him, such as Vince Bell and David Ball.

“It’s nice that people sound like where they’re from,” says Lyle.

The musician bristles at the suggestion that he made the album because he struggles to come up with new original work. “Gosh, no,” he says. “It was just a matter of not wanting to wait another year to record again.”

He will admit to penning the occasional stinker, though. “Sure,” he confesses. “I have songs that I’ll certainly never tell anyone about — they’re that bad.”

Natural Forces includes four new self-written Lovett tunes, including the foot-stomping, Bo Diddley-riffing Farmer Brown (“I’m gonna choke my chicken till the sun goes down”) and the innuendo-laden Pantry, which Lyle says was inspired by a conversation with his current partner April Kimble, whom he has dated since 1999.

“I was looking through the groceries, you know, very excited to see what she’d brought us home, but instead of doing my job and carrying the groceries into the house, I got distracted. And she said to me ‘Keep it in your pantry!’. I laughed, and said: ‘That’s a song, we’ve got to make that happen.’”

Like many performers, Lovett feels most comfortable on tour, and Natural Forces allows him to return to his natural environment — the road. “I feel so fortunate that the live audience has supported me over these years,” he says. “That’s really my focus, to be able to go out and do a good show for them.”

Touring also helps keep him afloat in a struggling music industry. Lovett has often gigged with his Large Band — an ensemble of 18 musicians — but the tour with Hiatt strips things down, including the financial outgoings. It allows Lyle to perform a wide variety of songs, too. “There are general parameters in terms of the material, but there are variables,” he says. “That keeps it fun, and fresh.”

Despite his prickly reputation, Lovett remains a man of the people, indebted to the loyalty of his fans. “I can’t underscore enough how much I appreciate the support of the audience,” he says. “To be able to do this all these years and to be as well supported as I am is a privilege. Anybody that gets to do something in his life |that he loves to do, with the most talented people, is lucky.”

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt play the Waterfront in Belfast on Tuesday, February 16. Tickets are £38/£44 and are available from all Ticketmaster outlets

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