Crooner Lovett loving his musical freedom




If you go

• What: Lyle Lovett, in concert.

• When: 8 p.m. July 13.

• Where: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway Ave., Portland.

• Cost: $43.95-$65.50 through Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000 or

• Information: 503-248-4335 or

Lyle Lovett doesn't let himself get tied to a set list of songs with his concerts. Yes, he has one, but it's hardly set in stone.

To script a show so tightly would rob Lovett of one of his main joys of performing: the flexibility to respond to the audience and play requests or to alter the selection of songs to fit the mood of the evening.

"No two shows are the same in that way," Lovett said in an early July phone interview. "I mean, if you're open to the possibility of interacting with the audience, and that really is the fun part for me, that's what makes the shows different from one another, even if you played a similar set. But I always like to allow for requests. The set list really isn't a set deal. It's really just sort of a guide for us, from which we can sort of jump off."

That Lovett would take that approach to his concerts makes sense for a guy who certainly hasn't built a career that follows the standard script for success as a music artist.

Lovett was originally promoted to the mainstream country market alongside artists such as Steve Earle, k.d. lang and Nanci Griffith as something of a maverick who was still rooted in traditional country music.

That was accurate to a point, and certainly his first two CDs — a 1986 self-titled release and 1988's "Pontiac" — were strongly influenced by traditional country. But Lovett showed early on he wasn't going to be fenced in stylistically.

With his third CD, 1989's "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band," he broke any mold that might have been solidifying around his music. Featuring a backing group that included fiddle, cello, a full horn section and backup singers (his now-familiar Large Band), Lovett added big-band-styled jazz, soul, blues and rock 'n' roll to his arsenal, all without losing country as a foundation of his music.

His albums since then have cut a similarly wide swath stylistically, establishing Lovett as one of the most versatile artists in all of contemporary music.

"If I had a strategy, my career might have been different," Lovett said, a summation that showed both humor and truth. "To be able to go out and play live with people you enjoy playing with, that really is the joy of being in this sort of business and doing it. It's not what comes of it; it's the getting to do it. That really is its own reward."

Lovett's most recent CD, "Release Me," continues a thread he started with his 1998 two-CD set, "Step Inside This House," the latter of which featured his versions of songs by writers — including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt and Steven Fromholz — who had most influenced his music and his songwriting.

He returned to that concept on the 2009 CD, "Natural Forces," which included covers of songs by many of the same writers featured on "Step Inside This House."

Now with "Release Me," Lovett continues the concept but with a bit different slant. As with those albums, "Release Me" offers yet another look into Lovett's musical influences. But more than anything, the album is meant to document songs (mainly covers mixed with a few originals) Lovett and the various configurations of his bands have performed live over the years but never recorded.

"That's what drove this record," he said. "It was songs that I had been playing live that I wanted to record for the people that have heard them (live)."

But where "Step Inside This House" and "Natural Forces" were focused mainly on country, "Release Me" falls more in the eclectic tradition of an album such as "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band." It has jazzy Western swing ("Garfield's Blackberry Blossom"), punchy blues ("White Boy Lost In The Blues"), horn-fueled R&B ("Isn't That So"), pure country (the title song), spare acoustic balladry ("Understand You") and even a Martin Luther hymn ("Keep Us Steadfast").

As its title jokingly indicates, "Release Me" is Lovett's last CD for Curb Records, which has been affiliated with several different Universal-owned labels in the past two and a half decades. Lovett has been signed to Curb and Universal for his entire recording career, and he said the labels have been very good to him. Still, he is looking forward to being a free agent, particularly now that the traditional major label models for selling CDs have been undermined by downloading and Internet marketing.

"Just the idea that I can sort of do whatever occurs to me is really exciting," Lovett said. "So if I wanted to give a song to people that subscribe to my mailing list, for example, I'd be able to do that.

"I imagine going forward that I'll produce my own records and either look for some sort of distribution or figure out a way to get them out there for folks," he said.