Written by Jane Ponte / Photos by David Britton

Way back when, in my mid-twenties, I co-owned a blues club in a college town in mid-Missouri. One chilly night, a storm blew into town and things at the club were slow. Most likely, the usual crowd was all hunkered down at home, where I was wishing I’d been, at the time. Bored and grumpy, I let a friend talk me into venturing up the road to another spot, called The Silver Bullet, to see some “country guy” that had rolled into town for a gig on the worst night possible.

Walking into the Bullet that night was no small task. The wind was whipping, and snow was blowing everywhere. I thought about changing my mind and heading back to my perch behind the bar at my own club, but my friend insisted that we go in and check out this guy from Texas that he’d heard was “the real deal.” There were about 12 people hanging out inside, nursing beers and looking as disinterested as I felt. What I didn’t know was that I’d just struck musical gold. The “country guy” was Lyle Lovett, and as the magic of that evening unfolded, I knew that the musical Gods had indeed shined their light upon me and the few lucky others that were in attendance on that fateful night.

These days, when I hear people refer to Lyle Lovett’s music as “country,” I absolutely must beg to differ. Ask anyone who attended his nearly sold-out show last Wednesday night at the Smart Financial Centre in Sugarland—Lyle Lovett may have some country roots, but he’s no slouch when it comes to taking his listeners on an amazing trek through some snazzy musical territory. From his stripped-down opening tune, “Once is Enough,” (1989, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band) which featured Lovett, fiddle player Luke Bulla, and guitarist Keith Sewell, to other fan favorites such as the hilarious and jazzy “Pants is Overrated,” Lovett treated his appreciative crowd—many of whom were friends and family—to a mixed bag of country, swing, jazz, blues, gospel, doo-wop, and folk-inspired tunes. His nearly 3-hour performance was nothing short of brilliant, and even included a few standards, such as Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” masterfully performed by Francine Reed, Lovett’s long-time friend and singing partner since the 1980s. Clearly, Lovett is an artist that can effortlessly bend musical genres, and with the expertise that His Large Band brought with them, he not only proved that bigger is indeed often better, but also that he’s much more than a country singer.

From my vantage point in the 10th row, I counted a baker’s dozen of impeccably gifted musicians who, throughout the evening’s performance, were introduced by Lovett and each given major props for their contributions not only to the band, but to the world of music as we know it. Lovett was quick to heap praise upon each member, sharing stories about their backgrounds and details of their accomplishments with his audience. Lovett is a gracious and generous man; he repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the time they’ve been a part of his life, both professionally and personally. He shared stories about the moments they’ve shared on the road and in the studio, how they met, and how they’ve impacted his life and his music. Twice, he took a back seat after introducing individual performances by Keith Sewell and Luke Bulla, his guitarist and fiddle player, and allowed them to showcase their newest musical endeavors with separate projects they’ve currently been pursuing. And when he wasn’t busy singing the harmonies with Sewell or the praises of his individual band members, he was grooving right alongside them as they each had numerous solos throughout the evening, many of them extended. His horn section, comprised of Mace Hibbard (tenor sax), Brad Leali (alto sax), Steve Herman (trumpet, flugelhorn), and Charles Rose (trombone) of the Muscle Shoals Horns, traded friendly jabs with Lovett between songs and added humor and warmth to the evening, and the masterful drumming of Russ Kunkel, whose resume includes tours and studio work with some of the greatest names in music history, laid down a perfunctory, stellar groove throughout the night. And as if all these fine players were not enough, adding depth and flavor to this nearly perfect ensemble was Dean Parks on the pedal steel, Ben Stivers on piano, John Hagen on cello, Viktor Krauss (Alison’s brother) on bass, and Ray Herndon on guitar. All in all, Lovett’s Large Band proved to all of us that they are one big, happy, supremely talented family.

For this Lovett fan, highlights of the evening included “I’ve Been to Memphis,” (1992, Joshua Judges Ruth), “She’s no Lady,” ( 1987, Pontiac), “Here I Am,” (1989, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band), “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” (1996, The Road to Ensenada), and Lovett’s closing song, “Ain’t No More Cane,” a traditional prison work song which has often been attributed to folk/blues singer Lead Belly. In the almost 3 hours that Lovett performed, he showcased virtually every side of his musical prowess and the diversity of his influences. He clearly demonstrated why it is so tough to pigeonhole this versatile and multi-talented artist, and why he is so much more than just a country music artist. Truly, Lovett is a musical treasure—one that has broadened the definition of American music as we know it today.

Because Lovett hails from Klein, Texas, a town close to Houston that is named after his great-grandfather, he spent a great deal of time during his younger days honing his craft at iconic music venues in the area. One of them was the legendary Anderson Fair and Retail Restaurant, a barn-like building in the Montrose district of Houston, where artists are required to play only their original songs. Lovett was quick to thank the owners and other friends of the venue that were in attendance on this magical evening. In fact, the entire show was a reunion of sorts for Lovett, complete with family, friends, and supporters who have been a part of his decades-long career. Since the release of his self-titled album in 1986, Lovett has received 4 Grammys, been in 13 feature films, released 14 albums, received numerous awards and accolades, and was recently named the Texas State Musician. And despite all his achievements, he still resides in Texas, in a house that was built way back when by his beloved grandfather. Clearly, his roots run deep in his home state, and they’re as much a part of him as are his quirky and delightful songs and stories. It is no wonder that Houston’s favorite son played to a room full of folks who love him so dearly. He’s come a long way from his humble beginnings, including back when he was showing up on the stormiest night of the year to play for 12 lucky folks at some random bar in a midwestern college town. With the spirit of a true Texan, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band proved that indeed, everything’s bigger in Texas, including His Large Band. If you ask me, I’d have to say that he hasn’t fared too badly–for a “country guy.”

–Jane Ponte