Interview: Lyle Lovett on Bob Dylan, Shakespeare and old vaudeville venues, ahead of his Cedar Rapids show

An Evening with Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen

Paramount Theatre — Sunday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Lyle Lovett in 2011 -- photo by Pat Padua
Lyle Lovett in 2011 — photo by Pat Padua

Texan Lyle Lovett began performing forty years ago this year, in the college town of College Station, where his alma mater, Texas A&M, makes its home. After four decades and four Grammy awards, Lovett is still full of passion and curiosity, with as many questions as he has answers and as many interests has he has influences. He radiates kindness, as well as that kind of deep Texas humbleness and courtesy that can get overshadowed in some conversations about the state. He is, unequivocally, the only person who can call me “Ma’am” and get away with it.

Lovett comes to Cedar Rapids this weekend, on Sunday, Oct. 23, to perform at the Paramount Theatre with long-time friend Robert Earl Keen. Tickets are $39.50–125. We caught up as he was heading to a sound check for his show on Friday night.

[Lovett:] We’re in a little town outside of Madison, Wisconsin called Stoughton, Wisconsin, playing a beautiful early 20th century, 1901 opera house that’s about 450 seats. … We’re there three nights in a row.

To be in the same place three nights in a row is really rare for us on tour … it’s kind of a resting up for us. Normally we travel every day.

You can kind of make it your home.

Exactly, exactly.

What’s your favorite spot that you’ve had a chance to perform?

To be honest, every place with a good audience is my favorite spot. In this kind of tour, especially, we’re playing these beautiful old theatres — they really are all just so much fun to play. Old movie theatres, symphony halls. In Carmel, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis, they’ve got the Palladium Center for the [Performing] Arts, which is a brand new symphony hall, a six-year-old symphony hall, designed by David Schwarz, who also designed Bass Hall in Fort Worth, and the Smith Center in Las Vegas, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall in Nashville — you know, those are elegant, beautiful places to play.

But playing great old vaudeville houses is a lot of fun, too. You can feel the history when you walk into them. So many of those kinds of theatres have been torn down across the country … We found a place in Newark, Ohio, I’d have to look up the gentleman’s name [Dave Longaberger], but it’s the Midland Theatre in Newark, Ohio, but it was one man who loved the theatre and decided to buy it in 1992 and have it restored … He passed away the year before it was finished, but he set it up so it could be finished and then go on without him. It’s run by a community there. Those kind of places are extraordinary, I think, when they reflect the dedication and the interest of people from the community, from the area. I always appreciate that — you can always feel that.

I don’t know if you’ve played the Paramount in Cedar Rapids before, but I think you’ll really love it, given those qualities that you seem to admire.

I have played the Paramount in Cedar Rapids, and it is a beautiful old theatre. What year was it built, do you know?

I don’t know off-hand, no. I’m not sure.

It’s a really pretty place, too.

There’s definitely been a lot of love from the community in there — the most recent flood scare with the river they had people from all throughout the community coming in to pull out the seats and make sure they stayed dry. It was a really fantastic communal effort.

Isn’t that great?! Oh, wow. Yeah, you all really had it. When the river gets up, that’s a dangerous thing, isn’t it?

Very true. You and Robert Earl Keen have been friends for a lot of years. How often do you tour together?

We’ve toured a little bit together. We’ve done a few dates. For the last three years, we’ve gotten together. He and I met in 1976 and have been friends ever since — good friends, very close friends ever since. When we’re both working with our bands, we often times go in different directions and have a hard time getting together. So we had the idea about three years ago to book some shows so that we’d be able to spend some time together, and that’s worked out great. We really enjoy it. This tour is actually a little bit longer than the tours we’ve done so far, and it’s been really fun to get to see each other every day during the day, and do the shows, and so we get to hang out like we used to in school.

It’s a real privilege, I’m sure, to be able to spend that much time with someone you love and respect.

It is, it is for sure. Robert and I were friends — I had started playing in clubs, and, well you know, just playing anywhere I could, for a job, when I was 18 and after, and I was playing around town, around College Station [Texas] … when I met Robert, but it was before I had any music business going. Our relationship really is different from other relationships that I have in the music business. We were friends first before we were in the music business, so it’s nice to be around an old friend.

The music business can be kind of cutthroat sometimes …

Well, it’s a really interesting business, and I’m grateful for the career I’ve had and grateful that I’ve been able to exist in the music business all these years. My first record came out in 1986, and I started playing clubs 10 years before that. So, 40 years later, 40 years after my first gig, to be able to still do something I love to do means a lot to me.

Retirement isn’t in your vocabulary, is it?

[Laughter] You know, I started getting questions about retirement when I was about 55 years old, and I thought to myself, if retiring is having enough time to just do things you love to do, then I’ve been retired my whole life. I don’t see any need to retire from doing something I would want to do anyway.

Screenshot from "This Old Porch," from Lyle Lovett's self-titled debut. He wrote the song with Robert Earl Keen.
Screenshot from “This Old Porch,” from Lyle Lovett’s self-titled debut. He wrote the song with Robert Earl Keen.


Where are you from originally, Genevieve?

I’m originally from New Jersey.

And do you mind my asking your age, just for some perspective?

Sure; I’m 39.

I’m always curious how much of my music whoever I’m talking to has lived through. So, you’re a youngster!

A little bit younger than your career, I suppose [laughter].

Have you always been a journalist?

Not always, no — I came to it kind of late actually, but I love it.

What did you study in school?

Oh, I bounced around to just about everything. I started out studying theatre, then I switched to physics, then I switched to music, then I eventually landed on English … I read that you had studied German and journalism in school … Have you ever thought about turning back to those studies … Have you utilized them over your career in any way?

Well, yeah — you use everything that you learn, I think. Being a liberal arts major, taking a foreign language was part of the curriculum, and German was always the language that I picked in high school, and even before that, my grandparents, aunts and uncles taught me the German they knew. My mom’s family background is German, so my grandparents spoke German, and my mom learned German as a child growing up in Texas. So I was always interested in that language.

But journalism is as much about learning English usage as it is about interviewing somebody. English is always good to know; it’s hard to get a handle on your native language sometimes.

Harder than foreign languages sometimes, I think [laughter]!

[Laughter] Well, you know, actually, Robert and I were just talking about this — because Robert was an English major — but really, learning another language helped me with my English in every way. You learn new parts of speech — learning German helped me with English, for sure.

So, as someone with a connection with the English language, and a songwriter yourself, what were your thoughts when Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize just recently?

Oh, my goodness — it’s terrific! I think it’s terrific. Dylan shaped the entire direction of singer-songwriters, I think. He’s probably the singular most important singer-songwriter ever, because his approach was so distinctive and because he was there at the beginning of the folk scene. I was thrilled. I don’t know Dylan; I’ve met him one time, I got to shake his hand one time. His winning the Nobel prize is a mark of credibility for singer-songwriters as an expression of literature.

You’ve had an acting career alongside your musical career. You’ve done television, film and even some stage work. How does that differ for you in terms of performing, than your musical work?

I’m kind of an accidental actor. I really only acted as a result of Robert Altman coming to a concert I did in 1990 at the Greek theatre in Los Angeles, and then he was nice enough to cast me in his films. My music keeps me so busy that I don’t really pursue acting in the way an actor would. I’m not out there in Los Angeles auditioning, but occasionally somebody will think of me, and invent something for me to do. I always enjoy it — every time I’ve gotten to act, I’ve enjoyed it, whether it’s on camera or on stage. The Shakespeare Center in Los Angeles — the director there thought of something for me to do with them in Much Ado About Nothing a few years ago, and it was really great fun.

For me, it’s a chance to work with smart and creative people in a different medium, and that’s very exciting. Any time you get to work with smart and creative people, it’s inspiring. And for me, acting is kind of a chance for me to be in the band. When I’m doing music, I’m sort of responsible for everything … that’s a fun difference for me as well.

I was actually in a production of Much Ado a couple of years ago, as well. It’s a fantastic show.

Really? Who were you?

I was Ursula.

Oh, nice! How long was the run?

It was just a few weekends.

That’s great. You’d done acting before that?

Yeah; it was my first opportunity to do a Shakespeare, though, so the English nerd in me was very happy.

[Laughter] Well, Ben Donenberg had done it with other singer-songwriters before as well — what he does is replace the songs in Shakespeare’s plays with contemporary singer-songwriters. So, he replaced the songs in Much Ado with some of my songs; I did “She’s No Lady,” for example and several other of my songs. I even wrote a song for the end of the first act, specifically for the production, and so that was really fun.

Ben Donenberg heads up — he’s originally from Illinois, but he’s been the artistic director of Shakespeare Center in Los Angeles since its beginning. He puts a contemporary spin on most of his productions. For example, our Much Ado was set in the California wine region after the second world war. It was a fun production for sure. Instead of wearing tights, we all wore old cowboy clothes.

Very nice! Yeah, it’s important to keep that timelessness alive — Shakespeare never seems timeless enough when it’s in tights and doublets.

That’s exactly it. When you transpose it into a contemporary setting, it helps you realize just how timeless his writing is. I agree. One of the things that struck me during that production — and it was a two-week run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, in Culver City, a 400-seat theatre — and you know how every audience, every audience has a unique personality. I certainly feel that every time I go out on stage playing one of our music shows.

But what struck me: I’m free to adjust to an audience when I’m doing one of my shows. I can change what I had in mind to play, I can just make adjustments on the spot. When you’re doing something like Shakespeare, you can’t adjust, really — you kinda have to go with Shakespeare … It made me appreciate the actors I was working with, because you have to find a way to make what you’re doing work in every situation, with every audience. I found that a different kind of challenge.

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