Thank God, He's a Country Boy

Sam Hurwitt reviews Lyle Lovett's album "The Road to Ensenada".

Published June 24, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Lyle Lovett has for the last decade had the dubious honor
of being a country singer for people who hate country music. "Well then,"
it's tempting to reply, "he can't really be country." Ah, but he is --
not the gaudy Nashville sort, but a simpler, down-home kind, with educated
forays into jazz and gospel and talking blues. He sings of the same
heartache and simple dreams that lie at the soul of the music but in more
reflective, eloquent terms. Like Sergio Leone, or Raymond Chandler, or
Ursula LeGuin, he works within a genre but produces work that transcends

"The Road to Ensenada," Lovett's sixth album, isn't quite on a par
with "Pontiac" or "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band," but then, few
discs are. This time out, he plays "both kinds of music, country and
western"; there's not much blues in the mix here -- he could have
called it "The White Album," though I guess I'm glad he didn't. There's a
pinch of bluegrass, a dab of swing, and strong echoes of the folk music
that lies beneath traditional twang.

Perhaps more than the music (but not by a lot), Lovett's appeal lies in
the poetry of his lyrics, which are as powerful as ever. He weaves together
common images and sentiments, creating a tapestry that may
be sad or funny, but always hits home, and hits deep. Lovett's deliciously
deadpan sense of humor, which has produced gems on every album and
dominated his last ("I Love Everybody," made up of throwaways from his
pre-debut notebook), only rears its head a couple of times on the new
album, most notably in the first cut, "Don't Touch My Hat," a honky-tonk
take on the "Blue Suede Shoes" sentiment ("If it's her you want/I don't
care about that/You can have my girl/But don't touch my hat"). There are no
tongue-in-cheek anthems here that measure up to "God Will" or "If I Had a
Boat" from his earlier albums, but there's enough to give the faithful
their fix.

Lovett gets a tad too quirky with "Fiona," an upbeat neo-bluegrass ode
to a one-eyed bayou girl, laced with almost inaudible (and thus
gratuitous) harmony vocals by Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin. But if he
errs on occasion, more often he hits the mark, as with the guilt-soaked
tearjerker "Who Loves You Better," the lament of a sinner afraid that his
straying will lose him his beloved. "Promises," a haunting song of helpess
regret, sung with minimal background guitar picking to add to the
atmosphere, hits emotive heights just as it hits emotional bottom. ("If
God is my witness/Then God is my saviour/But if you are my judge/Then I'm
already damned"). And "Christmas Morning" is an affecting tableau of
bittersweet yuletide bewilderment.

The cut of choice is Lovett's campy cover of Henry Strzelecki's rowdy
li'l honky-tonker "Long Tall Texan," sung as a duet with semi-legendary
songwriter Randy Newman. The pair's distinctive voices dovetail nicely, as
anyone who heard their rendition of Newman's "You Got a Friend in Me" (from
"Toy Story") at this year's Oscar ceremony can attest. They sound like old
friends sitting down for a song after a big home-cooked
meal and a whiskey (or three).

Like just about every other CD released in the last year, "The Road to
Ensenada" has a hidden track, popping up a minute or so after the last
cut. It's a silly gimmick, considering how quickly it became de
in the industry, and it's an idea at least as old as "Abbey
Road," besides. But "The Girl in the Corner" is worth the wait. This
watchful waltz of a man alone in a crowd ends the album on a more hopeful
note than would the "official" final track, "The Road to Ensenada." The
latter is a gorgeous tune, but the refrain "You ain't no friend to me" is a
bit much to close with, particularly from a man whose departing words last
time out were, "I love everybody/Especially you." The "Girl in the Corner"
aftertaste matches the album -- a trifle melancholy, but filled with beauty
and meaning.

By Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sam Hurwitt

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Country Music Music