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Lyle Lovett: 'You don’t think about hitting a home run. You just think about hitting wood on the ball'

Eric Molk (True Tone Group)
Courtesy Photo

The singer-songwriter will perform Sunday along with John Hiatt at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt will perform at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 9.

The singer-songwriters remain in a class by themselves, drawing upon a diverse range of music that spans jazz, swing, blues, country and folk.

Hiatt’s career dates back to the early 1970s when he began recording for the Epic label and amassing a series of covers of his songs that eventually ranged from B.B. King to Bonnie Raitt to Three Dog Night and Buddy Guy.

Lovett’s output since the 1980s has garnered consistent critical acclaim as well as he’s moved across a variety of genres that defy easy descriptors.

Originally scheduled to take to the road together in early 2020, the pair’s tour finally kicks off this week and runs into the fall with Wichita being one of the earliest stops on the jaunt.

Hiatt’s latest recording is “Leftover Feelings” with Jerry Douglas, while Lovett issued “12 of June” earlier this year.

Lovett recently spoke with KMUW from his tour bus where he also paused to change his guitar strings ahead of the tour kickoff in Springfield, Mo.

Interview Highlights

I wanted to offer condolences on the passing of Loretta Lynn.

Thank you. I wasn’t close with Loretta, but I was around her enough to experience just what a kind person she was. When she received the Kennedy Center Honor several years ago, I was part of the tribute to her. She was just so sweet about it all. I happened to be in Fort Worth one time and she was playing at Billy Bob’s, and she invited me to the show and got me up on stage with her and had my wife and me on her bus with her daughters. We got the full-on Loretta Lynn experience. She was just sweet, sweet, sweet.

On a side note, I’ve been involved in off-road motorcycle racing my whole life and, at her place, in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, she had a motocross track and there’s a big amateur national motocross championship every year at her place. There are all these kids that ride these dirt bikes and all they know of Loretta Lynn is this great racetrack. Her presence on this earth was far-reaching. I hate that she’s gone.

How did you first come to know John Hiatt’s music?

I first heard John Hiatt on stage on the 31st of January in 1981. John and his band, his rhythm section, were playing as Ry Cooder’s band for the “Borderline” album tour. I went to see him at the Paramount Theatre in Austin. Ry kept throwing John solos and introducing him during the show, so his name stuck with me, and so I looked him up after that; I sought out his records.

When I started going to Nashville in 1984, by that time John had moved back to Nashville, and I saw that he was playing a gig in Nashville. As it turned out he was doing a residency at a place on Music Row called the Music Row Showplace, I think. He played every week, every Wednesday and Thursday night. He played for six or eight weeks in a row, and I went to as many of those shows as I could. He was just playing solo, and I just loved him.

We’d be on the same event every now and then between then and when we first started doing shows together in 1989. That was because of Bill Ivey with the Country Music Foundation. He invited John and me, along with Guy Clark and Joe Ely, to an in-the-round show for the Marlboro Country Music Festival in New York. We did that in 1989. Then the four of us would get together more often, and we would tour. We did that until about 2008 when Guy Clark got a little too ill to tour the way that we did. After that, John and I started playing, just the two of us.

We’ve known each other a long time, we’ve worked together for a long time; we’ve been friends. We were meant to do a tour together in 2020, and we couldn’t. So I’m particularly excited about getting together with him today and seeing him again.

How much did you become a student of his writing. There are these qualities to his songs that are undeniable and nobody does them quite like he does.

Hiatt’s approach is different on every song. Some songs he’ll get his point across with poetry or wordplay. Sometimes he gets his point across by just the groove of the song. John Hiatt’s an amazing guitar player and very, very groove-y. He can create a groove, just him and his feet and his guitar and you just can’t sit still.

I would imagine that part of this is that these shows harken back to when you were both playing songwriter nights. Find out what the other person’s working on, that sort of thing.

Exactly. There’s not a way to perform that isn’t fun. But every setup that you do can be different from others. This show is a chance for us to play our songs the way we first wrote them, when you’re sitting on your couch or the edge of your bed and you’re imagining what an arrangement might be like as you think of words and chord progressions, when all of that stuff is more in your mind than it is anywhere else. That’s the way we play in this show. I’ll occasionally sing with John, and he’ll sing with me some and play guitar with me some, but it’s very informal and not worked out. It’s what would happen if you were just sitting at home playing to each other. It’s very much like that.

When you perform do you have any sense of, “Maybe this is some kid’s first show and maybe he’s just learning to write songs, and he’s coming to get some wisdom from what I do?”

Oh, gosh. I can’t imagine. It’s a real compliment. You can’t really think about the impact that you’re having or how people might receive what you’re doing. I just try to think about … oh gosh … [laughs], “What might I play?” “What might I play in response to something John does? How is this going to go?” I don’t really know, and I just hope to survive my own songs and help out with John’s. I just want it to feel good. That’s all. What you do and how it hits other people kind of takes care of itself. That’s not something you have to consider. You don’t think about hitting a home run. You just think about hitting wood on the ball.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.