While I was grabbing a snack during the intermission at Lyle Lovett’s recent Wolf Trap show, I overheard a mother telling her kid not to get lost. If there was a show where she didn’t have to worry about that, at least not very much, it was this show. If the audience was as good-natured as Lyle, who seems like a genuinely kind and sweet man, she could count on things working out.
In this performance, Lovett was accompanied by his large band as well as the National Symphony Orchestra. Not every artist’s music would work in that configuration, but his does. While his self-titled debut and the follow-up, Pontiac, were fairly grounded in country, he quickly moved beyond that genre with his third album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. (I joked to the folks sitting next me to that this night’s performance was with the “extra large” band.)
Lovett’s move beyond country to incorporate swing, blues, gospel, and even pop was part of a larger trend. A number of artists who broke through in the ’80s as country musicians — namely Lyle, Steve Earle, and Nancy Griffith — moved to the pop/rock divisions of their labels at the end of the decade and in the early ’90s. There’s still a twang in much of what he does, and country provides the foundation of many of his songs, but Lyle consistently pushes the boundaries of all these genres in thoughtful, interesting ways.
All three artists I named in the last paragraph are also Texans, and Lovett has always celebrated and dug into his Texas roots. His family, as he explained at Wolf Trap on August 5, has been in the state since the middle of the 19th Century. “The 12th of June,” which lends its title to his latest album, released last year, is a reflection on a place he loves, a family cemetery in a clearing in the Sam Houston Forest he would visit every summer during his youth.
When he was growing up, he shared during the second set, Lyle’s parents were both working a lot. As a result, they didn’t take long vacations, instead taking off in the car for a weekend for places in driving distance. These experiences influenced “South Texas Girl.” Townes Van Zandt, one of Lovett’s major influences, came up when Lyle was introducing “Are We Dancing?” It was a humid night, which reminded him of his hometown of Houston, and he cited the Townes quip, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.”
Watch Lyle Lovett perform “Are We Dancing” live for KUTX on YouTube:
The theme of family came up a number of times on Saturday evening. “I always wanted to be a dad,” Lovett said, but it didn’t happen until he was 59. He has six-year-old fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. One of the joys of his life is getting to do normal, everyday dad stuff with them, like getting them dressed in the morning. One day, he said, they just weren’t having it, and he considered the possibility they might be right: they were created by God as “perfect beings,” he said, and “Who am I?” he pondered, to insist that they wear clothes. The song that came out of this, “Pants Is Overrated,” (which appears on the 12th of June album), is a real banger, a big-band number with gospel-inflected background vocals.
Lovett’s band included a number of well-known instruments. The rhythm section consisted of Leland Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums. The two have been playing together since 1970, since they were put together to back James Taylor. As my photographer said to me, they may have played on more hit songs than any other rhythm section. (“More hits than Pete Rose,” was how he described it.) In a classy move, Lyle devoted time during the set to give everyone an introduction, even sharing their other projects, like the Kunkel and Sklar’s band, The Immediate Family. I was also familiar with fiddler Stuart Duncan, who among his many projects, was part of the Goat Rodeo Sessions with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Each of the night sets two sets began with an instrumental piece by the Symphony. The night started off with Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” and the second set opened with a John Williams composition from the motion picture Warhorse, “Dartmoor 1912.” After the initial instrument piece, Lyle took the stage, and his first song was “Naked Party,” then “Pants Is Overrated,” followed by “The Mocking Ones” and “Are We Dancing?” Between songs, Lyle talked about how he got started doing orchestra shows a number of years ago in Kansas. He also talked how, when he was growing up, playing music seemed “pretty unlikely,” as it often does for kids from working-class backgrounds.
“If I Had A Boat,” he shared, was written when he was 20, while he was skipping a history class. The song, he said, is about “being able to grow up and do whatever you want to do.” I largely endorse this point, though some of my more fantastic ambitions as a child — like becoming a Jedi Master or a professional wrestler — probably aren’t what he had in mind.
Watch the official music video for “If I Had a Boat” by Lyle Lovett on YouTube:
The first set continued with “She’s No Lady” and “12th of June,” and finished with “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” a big shout-out to his home state.
After the John Williams piece played by the orchestra, Lyle introduced his first song of the second set, “Natural Forces.” He dedicated it to a couple of servicemen in the audience. The song, he explained, was written on a really nice day, when he considered how he is able to enjoy the leisure and relaxation that he can because of our men and women in uniform. The second set continued with “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind,” the aforementioned “South Texas Girl,” “North Dakota,” “Simple Song,” and “Memphis,” ending with “Church.” For the last several songs, the orchestra left the stage, and it was Lyle and various configurations of his band. For his encore, they played “You Can’t Resist It.”
Lovett’s music combines sharp, literate songwriting and a fine sense of humor with a lot of heart, and sets it all to exciting arrangements. There was a lot of energy and a lot of feeling coming from the stage. It was Lovett’s 29th appearance at Wolf Trap, and I can’t wait for him to come back for his 30th show there.
Here are some photos of Lyle Lovett & His Large Band performing at Wolf Trap on August 5, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.