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A `Country' Artist Who Defies Labels. Singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett reaches for a brass-and-strings section as readily as a twanging guitar, offering personal folklike lyrics in a voice of pure blues

By Scott PendletonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 1989


THIRTY minutes before show time at Boston's Berklee Performance Center, some ticket-holders are talking over dinner about singer Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. ``A friend in Denver sent us a tape. And on it was an unheard-of guy - at least, unheard of by us - named Lyle Lovett. [We] flipped. We just thought it was the greatest stuff.''

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Five minutes to go. The house lights flash inside the 1,200-seat auditorium, bringing stragglers in for the sold-out show. An audience member from Maine says he waited in minus-10-degree weather for 45 minutes to get his third-row seats.

``We're big fans of Lyle,'' he says. ``I bought one of his albums. ... `He's tremendous!'''

Such praise means Lyle - as everyone calls the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter - is gaining ground in his effort to redefine music-industry categories. Nominally a ``country'' artist, the Houston native is just as likely to reach for a brass-and-strings section as a twanging guitar. His lyrics are personal and folklike, his voice pure blues.

``They've never tried to make me into the next big country singer,'' Lyle says of MCA, his record label, in an interview before the show. But he also says he was fortunate to take his demo tapes to Nashville when record companies were experimenting with new sounds.

The music industry may pay lip service to originality, but the truth is that record companies breathe easier with songwriters who will put a fresh coat of paint on a reliable old formula and drive it to the top of the charts. Traditional acts still sell the most records.

``I think it would be tougher for me to get signed right now in Nashville than it was four years ago,'' Lyle points out.

He hasn't exactly let the industry down, though. He's given country radio five Top-20 singles and one song, ``Farther Down the Line,'' in the Top 10. Still, many radio stations prefer a square peg for their square-format hole.

Yet as the Berklee house lights finally dim, the music the crowd is primed for is anything but square. The show is actually a double-headliner concert, with acoustic guitar legend Leo Kottke taking the stage first.

The pairing works well. Kottke's one-man act contrasts with Lyle's packed stage. The appeal of a veteran of 20-odd albums and years of touring complements the surging interest in the talented newcomer. Kottke dazzles the house with intricate, mostly instrumental melodies with names like ``I Yell At Traffic.'' OPENING the second half of the show, the Large Band assembled by Lyle for his traveling show appears: three saxophones, a cello, a black female vocalist, keyboards, bass, drums, and lead guitar. It stretches and struts with Clifford Brown's ``The Blues Walk.'' Then Lyle appears and works through ``Here I Am,'' a talk/song m'elange.

His famous froth of hair boils over onto the mike as he looks the audience in the eye and asks, ``Can you doubt we were made for each other?''

The Berklee audience enthusiastically receives each song, from the high-speed, country-styled ``L.A. County'' to the jazzy ``Cryin' Shame'' and ``Simple Song,'' the latter a haunting duet with cellist John Hagen. The fans also enjoy the humor Lyle delivers in between numbers.

``I don't get a lot of hate mail,'' he says by way of introducing ``If I Had A Boat.'' A letter writer has sounded off because the song makes light of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Lyle deadpans defensively, ``I just want to say that I'm proud of everything they've ever done.''