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Gentle Giant

Alt-country singer-songwriter homes in on emotion.

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His singing immediately dispels doubts raised by his eccentric appearance. His voice is unique and classic, cello-warm, lightly textured with a limber sense of time. It enables him to stretch the lyrics around himself so naturally that he seems to wear a song as much as sing it.

His roots are in alternative country music, the commercial backwater and artistic haven of underrated poet-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Walter Hyatt and Guy Clark. Their songs are full of the usual genre touch points, cowboys, horses and honky-tonks, but the lyrics are illuminated by precise observation and social conscience.

It’s a world Lovett understands. Born in 1957 in Klein, Texas, a small town named after his great-grandfather, the singer grew up on his family’s ranch. He spent seven years at Texas A&M, where he launched his musical career while studying German and journalism. A school newspaper interview with singer Nancy Griffith led to a friendship that gave him his first professional break; she recorded one of his songs and enlisted him as a backup singer on her 1984 album, “Once in a Very Blue Moon.”

In 1986 and ’87 Lovett released his first two records, establishing his versatility with a varied set of songs that moved musically through country, pop and jazz. Lyrically they traveled from heartfelt sincerity to subversive cynicism. His third album, “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band” was his breakthrough; the big ensemble setting, with horns and backup singers, magnified everything that makes Lovett different: his quirky wit, his eclectic musicality, and his ability to mount a spectacular performance on his own terms.

The momentum of success carried him to Los Angeles, where he made a memorable acting debut in Robert Altman’s scathing 1991 film biz satire “The Player;” the smart, taciturn singer played a smart, taciturn detective. In 1993, after a whirlwind three-week courtship, he married superstar Julia Roberts.

The plain but talented country boy winning the heart of the glamorous beauty was the perfect supermarket-checkout-magazine-fairy-tale ending. The marriage had a shelf life of about two years; ironically, it’s the most famous thing he ever did.

Big screen celebrity doesn’t have much to do with Lovett’s art; even with the Large Band he focused on miniatures. His greatest strength is in detailed views of small events. On his new compact disc, “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” there are songs about fleeting highway infatuation, how long Election Day seems to a spiritless alcoholic, and the solitary freedom of being the first to wake. While the singer’s output has slowed over the years (his previous CD of original material was 1996’s “Road to Ensenada”), the songs remain personal and focused.

And best experienced live, Lovett shines in concert. Part of the reason is the singer’s perfectionism, honing the songs over hundreds of performances. Part is the energy that builds back between the audience and the band.

But perhaps most is because the songs work best in person, delivered by an artist whose vision is expansive enough to have a human scale. S



Lyle Lovett plays the Carpenter Center Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $42-$47 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 262-8100.

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