Lyle Lovett's familiar smirk practically travels down the phone line from his home outside of Houston. He is talking about a personal failing, namely, his
inability to dance.
"When I write a song, I start with a lyric, with an idea of what to say in a song, not how I want to make people move," he explains in a recent telephone interview. Then he chuckles. "My body does not move."
Don't let his self-deprecating humor fool you. The key ingredients in any Lovett album have always been rhythm, heart, and razor-sharp wit. Since the early 1980s, Lovett has developed an old-timer's feel for the dance floor, even if he has spent most of his adult life onstage, stiff as a board. From his jazzy Large Band days to his 1996 Grammy Award-winning release, "The Road to Ensenada," Lovett has cultivated an uncanny skill in getting toes tapping and wallflowers laughing.
At first hearing, Lovett's latest release, "Step Inside This House," seems to carry on in this rootsy singer-songwriter tradition. But then you look at the liner notes. The singer is Lovett, but all the songwriters are a different story.
There's Robert Earl Keen and the late Walter Hyatt, David Rodriguez and the late Townes Van Zandt. For his part, Lovett says he felt it was time to pay tribute to all the Texas songwriters who inspired him to pick up pen and guitar.
"These guys are my teachers. They taught me what a song is and what it can do," he says, adding, "These are all songs I wish I'd written."
Referring to the length of the album - two CDs, with 21 songs - he explains the typical writer's quandary of choosing between one's favorite works: "I couldn't narrow it down. When I was recording one song, I would think of another song, and another. I didn't want to leave myself a chance to have to come back and do it again."
In truth, Lovett has played these songs for so long - they were part of his first performance set, back when he was 18 - that they almost sound as if he did write them. And for those fans who might feel disappointed by an album of cover songs, take heart: Lovett hasn't stopped writing. Once he finishes the fall tour - scheduled to begin Oct. 1 in Sparks, Nev., and finish Dec. 2 in Austin - he plans to return home to record his next, all-original album.
On "Step Inside This House," Lovett celebrates the many styles of country-music tradition, from bluegrass to swing to gospel. The album also explores the full tumult of human emotions, from Willis Ramsey's sulky "Sleepwalking" to Hyatt's peppy number, "(I Know About Lonesome) Teach Me About Love."
So what is it about Texas that brings out great songwriters? Lovett resists the temptation to quote his song "That's Right, You're Not From Texas."
"I think it goes back to the dance-hall tradition," says Lovett, who remembers visiting his grandmother out in the country near Houston and being enthralled by the musicians who plied their trade at weddings, picnics, and barn dances. "There's a great tradition of live music in Texas, and people supported it. So that made it possible for these songwriters to thrive."
To this day, Lovett prefers the feel of an intimate theater or music hall rather than a massive stadium sellout, even if that means fewer tickets and less money. "Each audience has its own mood," he says. "As soon as I step out on that stage, I can feel it. And the more you can engage the audience, and hear what they are saying, the more enjoyable it is for me as a performer."
* For tour dates, check out: www.pollstar.com