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Lyle Lovett, Country Music’s Most Mysterious Man, Can’t Stop Rambling

Standing behind a camera atop a tripod onstage at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin, North Carolina, Lyle Lovett peers into the viewfinder and pauses for a moment before hitting the shutter button.

Lovett’s road manager yells loudly, “Fire in the hole,” as the room goes silent, the only subsequent sound being the click of the camera. The entire scene repeats itself a handful of times before Lovett is satisfied with how the empty venue, soon-to-be-packed with concertgoers, is portrayed.

“In terms of every type of expression you might engage in, it’s just all the same,” Lovett tells Rolling Stone. “It’s all connected.”

For over a decade now, Lovett has been snapping images of each and every single stage he’s played. Initially, he viewed it as a way to maintain a presence on social media without seeming self-indulgent or self-congratulatory. But, nowadays, he finds the act of photography a sort of full-circle thing.

“My parents had this little Argus camera when I was a boy, and they were always fine with me playing with [it],” Lovett says. “In 1978, I bought a Nikon, which I still have. It was my last film camera. I’ve been shooting with a Sony [lately]. I keep a camera with me all the time — I love taking pictures.”

Whether it’s still photographs or poignant melodies, Lovett is a conduit of people and place, emotions and sentiments. It’s a timeless task for Lovett, where detailed images of daily life or eternal musings are captured and offered up to the world at large.

“With anything I present, you could draw a straight line to another medium, whether it’s a song or a picture,” Lovett says. “It’s important to me to be consistent. The reason it’s important is I’m just getting to be myself.”

Peeling back the layers of Lovett’s vibrant career, it’s easy to see why he’s remained a cherished act in the realms of Americana, country, and folk music since he first emerged on the national scene in the mid-1980s: “consistency” and “being yourself.”

“I feel so privileged in my job, in that I get to go around and just be myself all the time — warts and all, for better or for worse,” the 65-year-old says. “There’s never a point in what I’m doing that I have to, you know, pretend or act a certain way. Playing and singing, making up a song or taking a picture, it’s all the same thing.”

Last month, Lyle Lovett & His Large Band embarked on a new nationwide tour. Kicking off in Kentucky, the journey seemingly hits every corner of the lower 48 states and parts of Canada before wrapping up in Texas in late August.

“It’s all a work in progress. You’re just trying to do your best to figure out what to do next and how to continue to keep your audience’s interest,” Lovett says. “The great thing about working with talented people is that you get together and collaborate — new ideas come forward, so I’m always excited about that.”

Once fall rolls around, Lovett will again pack his bags and hit the road, but this time as a solo act, just his voice, a guitar and whatever magic may occur by happenstance. He’ll be joined for several dates by John Hiatt, then a handful of shows with Leo Kottke.

“The bottom line is that [touring] is how I make my living. I never sold enough records to ever get a mechanical royalty from a record sale,” Lovett says. “But having the record deals I’ve had and having my records out in the world has given me a touring life.”

To note, Lovett will also headline the 16th edition of the Cayamo music cruise March 1 through 4, 2024. Dubbed “A Journey Through Song,” the sold-out affair will include Lake Street Dive, Billy Bragg, Nikki Lane, Rodney Crowell, Hiss Golden Messenger, the War and Treaty, the Mavericks, and Lucius. Lovett is a passionate, if unlikely cruiser.

“[The cruise] is a great gig. It’s all the fun of going to a festival. You get to see performers you don’t always get to see, all in one place,” Lovett says. “And you can’t go anywhere [but the boat], so it’s all about association and genuine interaction. That’s the appeal of it for performers and for the audience.”

In conversation, Lovett is affable and introspective. He’ll answer a posed question with a meticulous response, one filled with wonderment and excitement. And it’s those same characteristics within Lovett’s curious soul that have remained since his teenage days of playing guitar with a high school buddy at a now long-gone steak and seafood restaurant in his native Houston.

The year was 1976 and Lovett was just 18. From there, he enrolled in Texas A&M University in College Station. Studying journalism, Lovett covered local events, campus concerts, and city meetings, a camera always in-hand.

And all the while, Lovett kept finding small shows to play along the way. No matter what Lovett was doing academically or socially, his guitar remained, so did a constant urge to book another date.

“I just enjoyed [performing]. And I was probably trying to convince myself I could do it [early on],” Lovett says. “The only way I could convince myself that I could do it was to always have a gig booked. I just tried to have something booked all the time, that was my [business] model.”

Soon enough, he was couch-surfing in the musical bastions of Austin and Nashville, slowly scratching at the surface of the possible prospect of becoming a singer-songwriter.

“David Lloyd had this established band around Austin in [the late 1970s]. And they used to invite me to come open for them without being booked by the clubs they were playing,” Lovett says. “And I stayed at David’s house more than I stayed anywhere. That was the difference between being able to play gigs for 50 bucks a night or not.”

The camaraderie that Lovett found with other aspiring or long-time musicians in Houston, Austin, and Nashville is what set the tone for his own endeavors. “For me, it was incremental steps, there was never a big leap forward,” Lovett says. “It was more of getting positive encouragement at every step along the way that made me want to keep going.”

Whatever the future held for Lovett, he was simply, happily along for the ride — hell or high water, his fate had been sealed.

“I was really fortunate to get to know some of my heroes personally: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey, Michael Martin Murphey,” Lovett says. “No matter the generation, there are people who appreciate quality and appreciate good music, real musicianship. Those people find each other and they make good things happen.”

Skip ahead almost four decades. A handful of Grammy wins, several signature songs like “If I Had a Boat” and “This Old Porch” (written with Robert Earl Keen), and widely acclaimed albums, coast-to-coast tours and numerous TV/film appearances later, Lovett stands as an American musical institution — always evolving, constantly shifting into the next project.

Packing up his camera gear backstage at the Smoky Mountain Center, Lovett readies himself and his longtime band for the impending performance. Pop open the guitar case. Switch out the blue jeans for dress clothes. Go over the setlist. Walk down the hallway and toward the bright lights on the other side of the curtain.

“If what you can do can make someone in the audience [think about] their own life, if somebody can take my words and relate it to his or her own experience, then that’s what you hope for,” Lovett says. “My favorite compliment is not, ‘I love the second line in the third verse of that song.’ It’s, ‘Gosh, I remember exactly what I was doing the first time I heard your song.’”


And yet, Lovett himself looks at the entire trajectory of his personal life and artistic pursuits as all “one thing” — a single, continuous moment of being.

“There’s songs I’m playing that I made up when I was 17 years old, and I’ll keep playing as long as folks show up,” Lovett says. “[Life] is like writing [a song]. You start out thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be about this.’ And, as you get into it, it can change or it can develop, it can become more layered — all of that can happen once you’re inside of it, whatever ‘it’ is.”

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