Fans of Americana, bluegrass, and country music have some tough choices come Thursday. High on the radar of any Texas songwriting aficionado is Lyle Lovett’s appearance at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. After visiting Charleston with the “in the round” combo of himself, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, and John Hiatt in 2007, the long, tall Texan returned with his band the following year. He clearly enjoyed it, and he’s back for more.
But just next door, he’ll be competing with one of country music’s biggest names, Alan Jackson, whose appearance at the Coliseum directly coincides with Lovett’s show. For many, however, that’s not the conflict. Across town at the Pour House, mandolin extraordinaire Sam Bush headlines a notably big show for the small James Island venue. Lest one scoff at the imagined hassle of choosing between bluegrass and Americana, they need only listen to the album Lovett’s current tour supports, 2009’s Natural Forces, on which Bush plays.
Amidst fantastic, moving originals like “Empty Blue Shoes” and the title track, Bush’s mandolin flourishes embellish a Lovett album as diverse and wide as the state that inspires it. Bush even lends vocals (alongside Lovett’s resident bassist, Viktor Krauss, brother of Alison) on the rolling Texas swing number “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel.” Fortunately, for the dedicated fans of both, Bush’s show should still be gaining steam when Lovett’s concludes, making for a potentially epic night of acoustic listening pleasure.
Bush and Krauss are just two of the countless talents Lovett calls his friends. He co-penned “It’s Rock and Roll” with his college buddy from Texas A&M, Robert Earl Keen. Singing about loving and leaving, teeny-bopper fans, and promoters that want to “line their pockets with what’s left down in your soul,” the electrified rocker is an anomaly for the typically soft-spoken Lovett. Covers like Eric Taylor’s “Whooping Crane,” S.C.’s own David Ball’s “Don’t You Think I Feel it Too,” and Townes van Zandt’s breezy but emotional “Loretta” are more along the lines of what listeners expect from Lovett: dripping wit, heartbreak, and big-sky perspective as he sings from the drooped corner of his mouth.
Born and raised in central Texas, Lovett first made his name with the hit “Cowboy Man” in 1986. Natural Forces is the four-time Grammy winner’s 13th album. “The secret of Lyle Lovett’s endurance comes down to the three Cs,” wrote Esquire of the singer’s ever-growing esteem in the country world. “Class, charisma, and consistency.”
Indeed, Lovett is not only a persistently impeccable songwriter, but he conveys his songs in such an honest and authentic manner that listeners can’t help but love and respect him — even when a song title is as staggeringly heartbreaking as “I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You.”
Lovett is a true Texan. In 2002, he spent six months recovering from being horned by a bull on his family’s ranch. Lovett directed and starred in a VH1 special (viewable on at lylelovett.com) that demonstrates his gritty down-home roots, always with his subtly wry humor. A highlight is the visit to his uncle’s front porch, where visitors to Texas are taught the proper angle to position the cowboy hat they inevitably purchase upon arrival, helping them to blend in with the locals. For his current fall tour, Lovett didn’t even break across the Texas state line (save one show just across the border in Louisiana) over the first nine shows before venturing through Alabama, Georgia, and then to Charleston.
If anything defines Lovett’s Texas nature beyond his songwriting, it’s probably his love of horses.
“Songwriting is elusive in the same way horses are,” says Lovett. “You have to get to know every horse as an individual. There are general principles that apply, but they don’t all work the same way on every horse. Writing a song is like that. With a horse, you walk into the arena on the horse you have. When you think you’re ready, you get to show. And with music, when you think you’ve written the best song you can, you get to walk on stage and play. Anything good that happens beyond that is a bonus.”
After South Carolina, Lovett points the herd south again, skipping through Florida and New Orleans before heading back home. After all, as he sings in the title track of Natural Forces, “Home is where my horse is.”