ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

Right now, Lyle Lovett. For over two decades, he has done what few artists have managed to do - defy categorization. Lovett was born and raised on his family's ranch in Texas, and country music laid the foundation for his sound. He's won four Grammy awards, including best country album.

But Lyle Lovett isn't strictly country. Add folk, jazz, gospel, blues and R&B to his influences, and now you have to toss in the big band sound.

(Soundbite of song "Tickle Toe")

BROOKS: This is the opening track of Lyle Lovett's latest CD entitled "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: It's Not Big It's Large." If you have questions for Lyle Lovett about his music, his large band sound or the many influences that informed his music, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can also comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Lyle Lovett joins me right now in Studio 3A, and welcome to the program.

Mr. LYLE LOVETT (Singer): Thank you, Anthony.

BROOKS: Yeah. It's great to have you here.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, thanks for having me on.

BROOKS: I've been a big fan of yours for a long time. And I love this CD. So it's truly a pleasure to have you here. Tell me about this CD. First of all, our listeners who don't know, how big is this large band? I think I counted on the picture 19, including yourself.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, you know, it does get up to 18 or 19 on occasion. The first version of the large band - actually, the very first show we ever played was at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, back in 1988 as the large band. And we were only 10 pieces then. We had three horns, and Francine Reed was our only extra vocalist. And now, the horn section has gone to four and we usually sing with four vocalists.

BROOKS: And what do you like about this large band sound?

Mr. LOVETT: You know, it's - well, it's just a versatile group of musicians, and it allows me to play these arrangements that we come up with. I kind of painted myself into a corner in doing arrangements early on, being able to orchestrate the songs just sort of in my imagination. Then, the challenge is to be able to replicate that onstage.

BROOKS: I'm curious, too, about the title, and I'm sure you've been getting a lot of questions about this. "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: It's Not Big It's Large." It's a funny sort of subtext. But is there an important distinction there that you're making between a large band versus a sort of classic big band sound?

Mr. LOVETT: Well, you know, all along, some of my arrangements reflect jazz influences. But my arrangements were never straight up, legit big band. And so that's why, initially, I called the band the large band. We were a lot of people, but it wasn't big band music, really. And so this is just a continuation of the joke, really. Because big as - people do refer to it as the big band. And we don't do big band music.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, we opened this segment with the song "Tickle Toe," which is a jazz number by Lester Young that your large band does. But the CD moves into very different kinds of material. There's a country western thing happening as usual, as well as blues and spirituals. And I want to play the first minute or so of the second track, which is called "I Will Rise Up," which I think is extraordinary, by the way.

Mr. LOVETT: Thank you.

BROOKS: So I love to just play it and then get you talk about it a little bit.

(Soundbite of song "I Will Rise Up")

Mr. LOVETT: (Singing) In the darkest hour, in the dead of night, as the song clouds are gathered, and the lightning strikes, and the thunderbolt rolls, and the cold rain blow, the future it holds, what God only knows.

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) What God only knows.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) And I will rise up.

Mr. LOVETT: (Singing) And I will rise up.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Though I'd be a dead man.

BROOKS: That's "I Will Rise Up" of Lyle Lovett's new CD, "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: It's Not Big It's Large."

Lyle Lovett, tell me about the song. It's hauntingly beautiful.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, thank you very much. You know, I've always been attracted to gospel-style arrangements and, you know, I think, were it came really from this - the feeling of the times we're living in these days, when it seems that the choices that we have to make as a nation, as a people, seemed more critical than ever and seemed to have a extreme consequences whichever way we decide to go, and it just comes from that feeling.

As I start thinking about that song, an old Texas folk song, there ain't no more cane on the brazos, kept coming - just kind of coming into my mind. And so I combined my idea with "There Ain't No More Cane" to come up with the song.

BROOKS: 800-989-8255 is the number to call to join the conversation with Lyle Lovett about his new CD.

Let's go to a call. Let's go to Caroline(ph), who's calling from Anchorage. Hi, Caroline.

CAROLINE (Caller): Good afternoon, and thank you so much for being on the air. I first came to your music, Mr. Lovett, through Johnny Carlson. You were one of the few people he had on his last week. And I had seen you at a film, but I didn't know you were a singer until he featured you. And I wouldn't have gotten everything you were performing especially the "Joshua Judges Ruth," which has - it sounds like some of the same feel of what you've recently put out in my question - let me get to it - is how did you deal with country not knowing where to categorize you, because when you came out I thought - when I first heard your work I thought, this guy isn't country. He has too much literacy for country and that maybe not a good thing to say.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, Caroline, I appreciate your question. You know, I don't deal with it at all, Caroline. I've been really fortunate to work with business folks. The record company folks have always just kind of left me alone and let me do what I like to do. And thankfully, I mean, that's what's important to me which been - they put me in a record store really doesn't matter to me as long as you can find the record.

CAROLINE: Great. And when are you coming to Alaska?

Mr. LOVETT: You know, I've never - Alaska is the only state that I've never played in, Caroline. So put in a word for me because I'd like to come.

CAROLINE: I'd certainly have and I will do so again.

Mr. LOVETT: Thank you very much.

CAROLINE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Caroline, thanks for the call.

Lyle Lovett, you've said - I was doing some reading in preparation with the show - a great song is a rare thing. What to you makes a great song and great songwriting?

Mr. LOVETT: Gosh, you know, a great song has a quality of I think - just a great song reminds a listener of his own life and it evokes in an inexplicable way, I think, of a feeling, you know, just comes over you when you hear it. And so it is an intangible thing and - but, you know, we all know a great song when we hear one on the radio or hear one in person.

BROOKS: Well, you know, we've been talking about the various influences that make you hard to categorize - country, jazz, blues. But when it comes to country music, I'm thinking of that great line out of the movie "Ray," where Ray Charles goes, I like country music because I just like stories, I just like stories. And I'm wondering if you feel that way because it seems you love the story too when you're song-writing.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, certainly, I have always been attracted to songs that have a narrative quality and, certainly, country music comes from that tradition and that's, you know, it is still something that I really like about country music.

BROOKS: Let's take a call. Simon(ph) from Pullman, Washington. Hi, Simon.

SIMON (Caller): Hi, Lyle. How are you doing?

Mr. LOVETT: Fine, Simon. How are you?

SIMON: I have a question about your acting in "Short Cuts" by Robert Altman.

Mr. LOVETT: Yes, sir.

SIMON: And I watched that film religiously, and I have to tell you that your performance was really remarkable and you're truly creepy and lovable…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: …at the same time.

Mr. LOVETT: Thanks, Simon.

SIMON: So…

Mr. LOVETT: We'll probably be great friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: How are - how does your creativity work differently when acting than performing music?

Mr. LOVETT: Oh, gosh. Simon, you know, acting - I'm just trying to hold on and do my job. It's such a different process for me because, you know, as an actor, I'm part of somebody else's idea, and I'm trying to do what - like in the case of Robert Altman, I'm trying to do what Altman has in mind for me to do. In the case of recording my songs, I sort of have to be the director of that. So it's really a wonderful feeling to be able to trust someone enough as I did, certainly, did Robert Altman to be able to say, okay, here you go, just tell me what to do and I'm going to try to do it.

BROOKS: Thanks…

SIMON: Was there ever a temptation to work with Tom Waits while you were filming there?

Mr. LOVETT: Oh, gosh. I'm such a Waits fan, and I did get to meet him, and I was just thrilled, thrilled, I mean. He was so kind as well.

BROOKS: Simon, thanks for the call. I appreciate it.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

BROOKS: Sure. Just for listeners who may not have seen you in "Short Cuts" by Robert Altman, I think Simon described you as creepy and good because you were the sort of spectral presence for a while in that movie. We weren't sure what was going to happen, then you turned out to be a detective, right? A police officer.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, no, that was a different movie.

BROOKS: What am I thinking of?

Mr. LOVETT: "The Player."

BROOKS: "The Player."

Mr. LOVETT: "Short Cuts" was based on Raymond Carver short stories.

BROOKS: Right.

Mr. LOVETT: And it was - the story that I got to be a part of was one of my favorite Carver stories, one called "A Small Good Thing."

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOVETT: And the character that I played goes through a transformation. He starts out creepy and then, you know, decides to do the right thing.

BROOKS: Right. Let's go to Monty(ph), who's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Monty. You're on the air.

MONTY (Caller): Hey, Lyle.

Mr. LOVETT: Hey, Monty.

MONTY: Can you hear me?

Mr. LOVETT: Yes, sir. Just great.

MONTY: Hey, you did an album, a couple of albums back and it had a line, and it's similar to this. It said - it was about forgiveness. And the line went something like, I know you can forgive yourself and God can forgive you, but I can't forgive you. And that's the difference between me and God.

Mr. LOVETT: Right.

MONTY: You remember that line?

Mr. LOVETT: Yes, sir, I do.

MONTY: Hey, you know, it's so uncharacteristic your normal lyrics. I just wanted to get your comment on that.

Mr. LOVETT: Well, you know, and I certainly meant that it was a kind of, you know, a sort of an extremely sarcastic statement, Monty, and which I think also points up our human shortcomings as that's sort of what's behind it. Not to say that it's a good difference between God and us, mere mortals, but to say that that's, you know, this is kind of where I fall short.

BROOKS: Monty, thanks for the call.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're talking to Lyle Lovett about his new CD, "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band." Let's go to Tyler(ph), who's calling from St. Louis.

Hi, Tyler. You're on the air.

TYLER (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

BROOKS: We're great.

TYLER: I just wanted to thank Lyle, first of all, for his music and the content and everything, and say that it was just really a privilege and honor to speak to him. And thank you for the music. And I had a question about the song "Family Reserve" on the "Joshua Judges Ruth" album. It seems to be very autobiographical. It talks a lot about - seems to be people that you know, people that related to you. I just wondered if the people in that song were members of your family, and is it autobiographical in that sense?

Mr. LOVETT: Oh, absolutely. Tyler. All of those - I didn't change anybody's name to protect them. Those were all real stories and, for example, my cousin, Callaway, he died as a young, you know, young boy.

TYLER: Right.

Mr. LOVETT: He did actually, you know, he chocked on a peanut butter sandwich and was - you know? That story was - he was about my age, actually, and - that story was always told to me in a way of, you know, be careful. And so that was a story that I grew up within my childhood that made, you know, obviously, a huge impression. And I was, you know, I'm still very careful these days when I open up a jar of peanut butter.

TYLER: Yeah. That song has touched me in a lot of ways and I've listened to it repeatedly over the years and I've often, you know, wondered if, you know, how many the stories in there truly, you know, deeply, were those that it was your experience, and particularly, the opening line talking about your uncle passing away very suddenly. And it was just - it's a very neat song. And it's a song that's touched me in a lot of ways, and I just really appreciate you for the work.

Mr. LOVETT: Thank you, Tyler. I appreciate your listening.

BROOKS: Tyler, thanks for the call.

Let's try and get one last call in here. Let's go to Lee(ph), who's calling from Houston.

Hi, Lee. Lee, are you there?

LEE (Caller): Yes. Hello.

BROOKS: Hi. You're on the air.

LEE: Well, got a story. I was working as a staff writer at the Battalion at Texas A&M University in the late '80s. We had a strange album come through, promotional album. And this funny looking guy on the cover, black and white, album is called "Pontiac." And I'll let you know that there was a fight over who got the album, LP. I (unintelligible) walk away that I still have it. I got to go and look in the newspapers' morgue and pull up Lyle Lovett's newspaper stories when he was a journalism major there. So it's nice to see another avid journalism major that did well.

Mr. LOVETT: Thank you, Lee. I want to know, who thought I was funny looking?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEE: Of course, the hair - in that album you look a little fuzzy on the picture on front of an LP. It's like…

Mr. LOVETT: That's the way I really look, Lee.

LEE: We can't quite (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: Lee, thanks for the call. I'm glad you brought up that point. You were - you did have a moment in your life where you were thinking of becoming a journalist.

Mr. LOVETT: Well.

BROOKS: What happened to that dream?

Mr. LOVETT: Well, you know, it was something I really enjoyed doing. At my - I was - I just was really lucky to be able to continue playing music when I got out of school, but I really enjoyed - I never held a job as a journalist, but we did have a daily paper, the paper that Lee mentioned, the Battalion. And so, we could - all of us journalism students - could write as much as we wanted to because we just were, you know, just sort of desperate for things to have in the paper.

BROOKS: But did you like the idea? I mean, at a certain point, does something particular attract you about journalism and something turn you off of it?

Mr. LOVETT: Well, you know, I just think I enjoy people. I enjoy talking to people, you know, what fun this is? It's a rare thing to get to take calls like this in my life. And, you know, but I just think people are fascinating and I just - I always enjoyed talking to people and interviewing them. I had trouble with the hard questions. My regular beat was the city council in the Bryan, Texas and, you know, I didn't like asking questions that I felt were, you know, sort of tough to ask.

BROOKS: Well, we thought we'd end this break by playing another song of the CD. Okay, this is "No Big Deal." Do you want to talk about this?

Mr. LOVETT: You know, I made the song. Well, one time I stayed at my friend - Robert Keen's house and I was waiting for him to wake up.

BROOKS: All right. Well, Lyle Lovett, thanks so much for coming in and talk about this. It's been a pleasure.

Mr. LOVETT: Thank you, Anthony.

BROOKS: That's Lyle Lovett. His new CD is called "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: It's Not Big It's Large." And this "No Big Deal."

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