If you’ve listened to Lyle Lovett’s music through the years, surely you’ve spent at least a few moments pondering Uncle Wilbert. He comes to life in the second verse of fan-favorite “Family Reserve” with a vividness and sense of mystery that resonates three decades later. Our narrator doesn’t offer much detail: “They said for his younger ways,” Lovett sings, a snippet of regional vernacular that courses around the bend like a twisting road, “He’d get drunk in the morning and show me the rolls of 50s and 100s he kept in the glove box of his old gray Impala.”
These are details you’d typically find in the glove boxes of our best short story writers. The Impala — the vehicle, not the mammal — was gone by the time “Family Reserve” was written. It was a model like so many others, one that possessed a regal design before being altered with undignified versions that pandered to trends. The Impala succumbed in the ’80s and lost the elegant curves and angles that connected the car to its namesake’s antlers. At that point, it was just a sedan somebody else’s Uncle Wilbert might drive without the potential mischievous intent of this particular Uncle Wilbert. The Impala arrived in 1958, one year after Lovett was born. In Wilbert’s younger days, the car was a fairly fetching mechanism for… what? Transportation? Sex? It tantalized the imagination of younger family members whose folks were more likely to stash their money in banks than inside a car.
And why did they all call him Skinner? The name could be literal: Maybe, likely not, he was a hunter. “Skinner” is often used to describe a gambler, somebody targeting marks to make his money.
The point is, we don’t know for sure. That’s why Skinner lived on long after “Family Reserve” appeared on Joshua Judges Ruth, Lovett’s fourth album and a crucial one in his rich discography. It remains focused and meticulous — yet varied and widely relatable.
Lovett has always acknowledged his debt to the great songwriters who preceded him, those who helped him get bookings in College Station and Houston, Texas, during the 1970s when he was a young songwriter. His early family reserve of writers — Guy Clark, Eric Taylor, Nanci Griffith, Don Sanders, Steven Fromholz — clearly made an impression, as did a few who can still gather around for the photo like Willis Alan Ramsey and Michael Martin Murphey. They were scruffy contrarians and gifted lyricists, artists who absorbed the elements of their surroundings and developed their own distinctive foliage.
But let’s be clear about Lovett’s starting point and how it relates to the long arc of his career: As he honed the mysterious craft of songwriting as a student at Texas A&M University, Lovett also studied journalism and photography.
He has, and continues to have, an astute sense for what information to put into a frame and what to exclude. Lovett also has a keen sense of how to present those frames. Consider for a moment the three album covers that led to Joshua Judges Ruth, the 1992 masterpiece. Lyle Lovett from 1986 boasts color that startles today, because color has been absent from every cover since. Our narrator is framed in profile before an orange backdrop. His face is turned deliberately away from the camera. Let’s consider that photograph’s brightness an aberration.
It portrayed an artist who had been writing songs for years and was making a small concession to the industry, which was in the business of marketing personalities to make people buy lots of records. Willie, Waylon, the boys… they all looked toward the camera at times. Dwight Yoakam — a fellow 1980s country music outsider — didn’t, but still, a good 15 degrees separates the Yoakam of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., from the Lovett of Lyle Lovett.
It could be that the creative decision was as simple as: 1. Do a photo shoot and 2. Select the best photo. But I’ve never believed that to be the case: Album covers used to serve as portals. Our subject on Lyle Lovett looked away for a reason. The cover reminds me of Randy Newman’s self-titled album cover, on which another great storyteller and unreliable narrator doesn’t look at the camera. Albums have more direct authorship than books: Their writers have to account for their characters in a way that makes you sing or tap your foot. Even on that first debut recording, Lovett was telling us not “I am a purveyor of country-music songs,” rather “Here are some stories this guy is telling.”
He was deep in the frame and out of focus on Pontiac in 1987. He was closer, yet still out of focus on Lyle Lovett and His Large Band two years later.
Our narrator’s hands are crisply rendered on Joshua Judges Ruth. But the look is filtered; it’s a table-top reflection of a person whose head is out of the frame. “This is mine, but it’s not me,” the image suggests. “Not necessarily.”
I don’t know where the reflection and the reality meet, which is why Joshua Judges Ruth remains brilliantly beguiling. I’ve talked to Lovett enough about his songs to know he really had a cousin Calloway who “died when he’d barely turned two” (another “Family Reserve” casualty). While peanut butter and jelly was the culprit, the song’s assertion that “the help, she didn’t know what to do” has been challenged, because it’s natural for some listeners to seek literal truth in a lyric.
“Family Reserve” isn’t about Lovett’s family, even when it is. It’s about the ways we filter, then file, time. The ways we flutter apart and are blown back together. Some of these characters we recognize too well. I’d argue anybody who went to college knew a Brian Temple, who got drunk and decided to plunge from a third-story balcony into a swimming pool, proving catastrophically that gravity and alcohol don’t mix. Perhaps your Brian Temple is still among the living; maybe he moves with a limp. Not all Brian Temples land on the concrete. The fact Lovett’s Brian Temple wasn’t so lucky is his version of a relatable story.
The architecture of “Family Reserve” dominates this discussion of Joshua Judges Ruth because it reveals the album’s meticulous narrative construction that — like the aforementioned photographs — is full of some black and some white and all the shades of gray.
“Home” isn’t particularly a fundamental theme of Joshua Judges Ruth, but amid the life and love and death, it emerges as a concept — concrete, yet vaporous — worthy of consideration. Home can mean anything: a town, a house, a place of comfort or one’s creative space in the world. This was the first album Lovett made in Los Angeles, where sharper edges were as not sanded down as they were in Nashville’s assembly line.
Take the album’s opener, “I’ve Been to Memphis.” Before a word is sung, it sets a distinctive tone. Matt Rollings’ sharp chords on the piano break the silence. Drummer Russ Kunkel is a momentary intermediary before Lovett offers quiet-but-assertive finger-picking. The piano is the alarm clock, the guitar the process of getting out of bed. “The sun comes up in a coffee cup …”
We’ve established the time. But where are we going? Well, many places: Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Houston, San Antonio, LA and El Paso. Any music enthusiast will immediately graft musical associations onto each destination: blues, soul, the sounds of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Randy Newman, Bobby Fuller.
We’re not necessarily on the tour bus, but rather looking through a scrapbook of places it’s been. “When the sun goes down, in another town, bartender, please, another round.” Through one sun and two types of drinks, we’ve enjoyed a compact accounting of time that feels circular even as it moves forward, one day after the next — repetition with some variation.
This song sounds like the tale of a touring musician. But it could also be the story of a traveling salesman pushing vacuum cleaners. “And I make my bed,” Lovett sings, “where I lay my head.” He presents the transient life with perfection in one line. “And I wish I heard what she just said,” he adds. Because if something in the frame is in focus, plenty on the periphery is out of focus.
Lovett was nearly 30 when he made his first album. In his youth, his mother would commute from Klein, Texas, north of Houston, to her job at Exxon in the city, only to return to Klein, pick up her son and drive back to the city for his guitar lessons. Having studied journalism at Texas A&M, Lovett is still a reporter, in a way, but instead of headlines, he has an occasional horn section. He also booked songwriters at his college coffee house — songwriters he admired on campus, then interviewed for the school newspaper. They led him back to Houston, where he had to impress the audience at the tiny songwriter haven, Anderson Fair.
He traveled to Europe, where his chance meeting with J. David Sloan’s band from Scottsdale, Arizona, proved transformative. Visits to Nashville, the passing of a polished demo tape and a music industry that knew it needed to shed its skin every few years. A pegboard that briefly offered a small number of square spaces for artists like Lovett, Griffith, Steve Earle and Yoakam. This would prove a creatively fruitful time for Music City, though not necessarily the Next Big Thing.
Lovett’s first three albums had elements that can be found on Joshua Judges Ruth. The touch of surrealism in “If I Had a Boat” surfaces in “Church.” The moments of humor remain. The album also contains ideas about our expectations and how we manage those expectations as they degrade. As nurturing as a morning of song and prayer can be, sometimes a long-winded preacher stands between us and literal sustenance. The slow, anxious tension in “Church” creates a sense of desperation that ends poorly only for a single dove.
Musically, an interesting path emerges, too, in this song, and in Lovett’s discography. From go, Lovett worked with American music forms that had more in common than radio formats would have you believe: gospel, blues, old-time, hot jazz. A nascent music industry categorized and compartmentalized them nearly a century ago, but Merle Haggard was a vaudevillian who wore his own kind of hat, allowing him to toggle between Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Emmett Miller, W.C. Handy and more. Lovett trod some of the same soil, though perhaps he gave his boots a polish before hitting the stage. Nashville sought to bring country music to Lovett, and to an admirable extent, those efforts worked. He put songs on the country charts. But if there was a phantom of the Next Big Thing lurking in the Opry, that phantom would be embodied in artists who were able to transport country music’s history to sports arenas, rather than to the historical ornamental theaters where Lovett performs decades later.
There’s no right or wrong in any of this. Lovett found his space and works it to this day. He’s done so with ample style, but never lets form follow function. To listen to Joshua Judges Ruth is to hear the stories as the stars. He has cannily cast himself as the narrator, with eyes that dart, commentary that cuts and a nod of recognition to those attuned to his type of storytelling, in which moments of levity sometimes distract from a deeper gravity that always reveals itself. He defined, then refined, this form of expression. Joshua Judges Ruth isn’t the sound of a musician offering a dare, but rather an artist betting on himself: Four years after “Here I Am,” with this album, he appears to be saying “Here I Am.”
Turns out we were reading the newspaper over his shoulder.
Joshua Judges Ruth strikes a tantalizing tone — something far from the bright, sunny day of the gospel standard. From the swirling sense of travel in “I’ve Been to Memphis,” to the murky perspectives about people whose lives are in flux, the album revels in narrative opacity. It gives you information, but not too much. This album is a classic demonstration of the writing mantra “show, don’t tell.” Birth and death may be pretty clear here, but everything in the middle is what writers describe as “between the lines,” a bobbing vessel in the fog.
The way three consecutive books in the Bible create a sentence prompts a chuckle. And Ruth teems with redemption. If we’re diagramming sentences, in this title, Ruth is our direct object. How do we get to her and that redemption? That’s one of the joys of Joshua Judges Ruth. It travels (“I’ve Been to Memphis”) and it pontificates (I’ll forever ponder “North Dakota”). The songs are spirals, none of them pure circles, because that would limit their movement. We move through a year and may feel the same, but we aren’t. “I went to a funeral,” Lovett sings on “Since the Last Time,” “Lord it made me happy, seeing all those people I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.”
For all its toil and travel, entrances and exits, Joshua Judges Ruth closes in a way that befits the last book of its title. The penultimate “Flyswatter/Ice Water Blues” captures an old/young dynamic with our narrator who speaks simply about us and our paths to getting older. In that song, “Tink,” described as “smart,” is a hopeful shoot of green in the garden in a narrative that appears to focus on an older narrator and his longtime partner.
“She Makes Me Feel Good” closes Joshua Judges Ruth. This is a song not about resignation, but about managed expectations. We get through because we have each other, even considering our shortcomings. Long is the struggle. So enjoy the moments that feel right.
Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 from Rolling Stone, where he spent five years writing about music. He’d previously spent five years in book publishing, working with George R.R. Martin’s editor on the first two books in the series that would become Game of Thrones. He misspent a year in the film industry, involved in three "major" motion pictures you've never seen. He’s written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy and other publications.