By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit November 2, 2009)
This happened a bunch of years ago, when we were in a record shop in Nashville while moseying around Music City for the day. We were quizzing the poor clerk at the counter about some obscure rockabilly reissue or another, when in walks Alan Jackson — then one of the newest and hottest of the hat-wearing young bucks of corporate country, thanks to his hit “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and the (admittedly not-bad) album of honkytonk it came from.
The clerk let out a sigh, turned away from our needs and announced to the handful of people present, “It’s Arista recording artist Alan Jackson!” Whereupon the strangely reticent Jackson signed an autograph or two, mustering an embarrassed smile beneath his General Custer mustache. The singer departed without buying anything and the sullen clerk returned slowly to our side of the counter, both men doing it by the numbers in a ritual they had doubtless each enacted many times before.
We mention this only because the phrase “all hat and no cattle” often springs to mind as we contemplate the latest package of acts booked into places like Six Flags or the PNC Bank Arts Center — and how truly sad and scary it must be to be to have attained niche superstardom and still be forced to come face-to-face with your public at events like Fan Fair, where it’s you down there at a folding card table andthem looming over you point-blank close and enjoying high-ground advantage like they’re going fishing in a barrel.
We mention that because we don’t recall Lyle Lovett ever having taken that usual route to the top of the country charts. And if he’s sometimes seen sporting the hat (hell, Hank wore a hat, and better than anyone before or since), it’s because he’s got the cattle, literally — along with the hair to fill that ten-gallon Hat Store chapeau. Really, the cat grew up on a ranch outside of Houston, has continued to make his home on the range, and even got himself put in the hospital by a rogue bull a few years back for good measure.
Mr. Lovett therefore gets to wear whatever hat he damnwell pleases, and some fine tailored suits to boot. And it’s by virtue of his talents as a songsmith, performer and interpreter of the country-western/pop canon that he earned his Hollywood marriage, even if it seemed to just barely outlast the fabled short-lived congress of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine.
About those talents — they’ve served him well over the years, allowing him to prosecute a career that’s been smooth and satisfying and flavorful as an old cigarette ad, while other contemporaries have hit the achy-breaky boneheap, gored on the pointed ends of their multiple CMA awards, as they strove to maintain the expectations of their fans. Lyle Lovett? He’s led, while the audience has followed (or not) through his experiments in jazz, gospel, Western swing or whatever else came to mind. He’s held the cards, all the while looking for a game with a few good fans.
Lovett is back this season with a strong new album of country covers and originals (Natural Forces, which dropped less than two weeks ago), a new black hat and a new national tour with his amazing precision Large Band — a train that rolls into station-stop Red Bank for a Thursday night set at the Basie, with tickets ($29 – $75) still available for the 8pm concert as we post this, and reservable right here.