By Tricia Despres
At 61 years old, Grammy Award–winning singer, accomplished composer, and much-loved actor Lyle Lovett finds himself a different man than he once was. He’s breathing deeper and living a tad slower, and he’s content, both on and off the stage.
And he’s never been happier.
“I think I am not as worried about getting up onstage as I used to be,” he tells Ravinia shortly after the sound check for his performance at the George and Barbara Bush Foundation’s birthday celebration in June. “And my mind is not as big as it once was.”
He lets out a hearty laugh, a laugh that has resonated over a career that has cemented him as one of the greatest lyrical storytellers of all time, and one in an impressive line of singer-songwriters of Texas that includes the likes of Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
“Writing is hard—there is no doubt about it,” Lovett admits. “But there is nothing like it. There is nothing that excites me more than that feeling when an idea falls out of my head. That’s definitely the fun part.”
It’s been a career that has looked to be having its share of fun parts. Coming onto the country music scene in 1986 via his top-10 hit “Cowboy Man”—following a childhood in Klein, TX, (just on the edge of Houston) that saw him both learning how to play the guitar and singing in the choir—Lovett has gone on to release 14 albums and release over 20 radio singles, including fan-favorite hits such as “Why I Don’t Know,” “Give Back My Heart,” and “She’s No Lady.”
His work as a music man has also scored him four Grammys, including Best Country Album in 1996 for The Road to Ensenada, Best Country Duo/Group Vocal in 1994 for “Blues for Dixie” with the Texas swing group Asleep at the Wheel, Best Pop Vocal Collaboration in 1994 for “Funny How Time Slips Away” with the legendary Al Green, and Best Country Male Vocal in 1989 for Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.
In fact, Lovett is currently out touring with his Large Band, a western swing-style ensemble made up of skilled musicians that he says is some of the best out there.
“I work with such talented musicians and it’s a privilege to play with them every night,” explains Lovett, who majored in journalism back in his college days at Texas A&M University. “I mean, they are some of the best in the world. I just love listening to them when we are working out harmonies and such. I get to appreciate them up close, and that’s as good as it gets.”
And yes, years of maturing and growing more confident allows Lovett to let go more and more on stage and let his Large Band do what they do with more ease.
“Sometimes I’ll be on the stage and they will start improvising their solos and such, and I always give them room to do that,” says Lovett. “I love sitting back and listening to them fill that space between the lines with whatever feels right at the moment. It gives them the chance to deliver some different pictures every night for our fans, which I think everyone appreciates.”
Touring with a long list of songs under his belt also allows Lovett the chance to keep things fresh when he returns to some of his most beloved venues, such as the Ravinia Festival.
“Ravinia is one of the greatest outdoor venues there is,” gushes Lovett, who was awarded the Americana Music Association’s inaugural Trailblazer Award and was named the Texas State Musician for 2011. “I just love it. It’s a wonderful sounding venue and the atmosphere can’t be beat. You can always feel the energy of the audience.”
Lovett says he feeds off the gorgeous surroundings of Ravinia.
“You go there and you step on that stage and it just feels like summertime,” says Lovett, who knows a thing or two about playing to a scene, having acted in such films as the Robert Altman comedy-dramas The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Prêt-à-Porter (1994), and Cookie’s Fortune (1999). “It just feels like everyone there is carefree, if only for a night. Plus, I love seeing everyone sitting on the lawn. It takes you back to the days of whiling away a night outside as a little kid. There is nothing like it.”
It is definitely a haven for Lovett and countless other musicians throughout the summer months. This is especially true considering the increasingly complicated music landscape, a landscape that Lovett says he’s not sure how he would fit into if he was just starting his career today. “Ahhh, the music business,” he says with a sigh. “If I were brand-new right now, I don’t know how I would do it. I will say that there are more opportunities now than ever before, and you can promote yourself directly to the people. But still, the initial breakthrough—that’s still hard.”
Indeed, for Lovett, things seem to have worked out the way they have always been meant to be.
“I just feel lucky to have a job where I love what I do,” says Lovett, who made major Midwest news when he traveled to St. James Lutheran Church in Marion, IN, on June 27, 1993, to marry actress Julia Roberts. The couple would divorce after less than two years.
“A lot of people get up everyday to go to a job that they can’t wait to go home from,” continued Lovett. “I totally get that and it makes me realize that it’s such a privilege. I measure success by doing well enough to continue doing what you love to do.”
From a personal standpoint, life is just as good. In 2017, Lovett married longtime partner April Kimble. And recently the Texan bought back his grandfather’s farm, which the family had to sell in the ’80s.
And yes, he can’t wait to watch many a Texas sunset in the years to come.
“I just couldn’t be happier to be in my life and my career at this moment,” he concludes. “Sure, I’d love to have as many years in front of me than behind me, but it’s good. Life is really, really good.” ▪
Tricia Despres is a Chicago-area freelance entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Taste of Country, and a number of local, regional, and national publications. Follow her on Twitter at @CHIWriter.