By: Greg Mitchell
As a major Lyle Lovett fan, I was delighted to read in this week’s New Yorker profile that the ultra-cool Texas singer/songwriter is a fellow j-school graduate. Finally, there’s an explanation for his keen reportage in songs about penguins, gospel choirs, skinny girls and fat babies.
It seems that Lyle snagged a journalism degree from Texas A&M in 1979. A veteran of high school bands, he discovered he liked writing in college and decided to embark on a career in journalism because “making up songs, it was not a real job,” he told the New Yorker’s Alec Wilkinson. ” It didn’t feel like any legitimate pursuit that I would be able to continue.”
Now, the idea of Lyle (occasional Hollywood star and ex-husband of one of the biggest) going to an agricultural school in Texas should not shock anyone. He grew up, and still lives, on the family farm in Klein, Texas, 70 miles from College Station. In high school he belonged to the Future Farmers of America. In college most of his friends were ag majors, causing the late great Townes Van Zandt to label the whole crowd a bunch of “Agro-Americans.”
But Lyle wanted to be a reporter, and he wrote for The Battalion, the school’s daily paper. Besides more serious beats, such as covering the city council, he interviewed Texas songwriters he admired, such as Michael Martin Murphey, Willis Alan Ramsey and Steven Fromholz. According to one account, his big career break, getting a song on a Nanci Griffith album, came about only because she remembered him from a college interview. With that hair of his, who could forget?
But Lyle had a few problems as a journalist. First, he wasn’t above stopping an interview to ask the musician to teach him a song. Second, according to Wilkinson, “He couldn’t bear to write anything uncomplimentary” about his subjects. Finally, and this one is classic: “Eventually, Lovett gave up the idea of being a journalist, because, he says, he would think of a question, then decide, That’s none of my business.”
No wonder, then, that it took Lyle five years to get his degree. After graduation, he moved back to his parents’ home and played a few clubs, then went back to school — but not to continue in journalism but, egad, study German.
But clearly he has not forgotten his days at College Station as a j-major. In fact, he met his longtime girlfriend, April Kimble, about six years ago when he returned to the school to give a talk on — get this — ethics in journalism. Now, some would say that subject could be exhausted in a two-minute song, so the mind boggles at the thought of a college lecture.
Naturally, I went looking for a copy of Lyle’s talk on the Web, and while I could not find it, I did uncover a few other details from Lyle Lovett’s j-school days:
* “Journalism isn’t something I’ve learned,” he told one interviewer. “It’s a natural inclination. I grew up without brothers and sisters, I was not automatically part of a group, so I became very curious about the way things work, how people interact. I watch and learn.”
* “I never worked as a journalist,” he told the Austin Chronicle in 1998. “Fortunately, I’ve never had a job.” On his college interviews with musicians: “I had a really great time talking to singer-songwriters and trying to pick their brain and see how they worked.”
* In 1998, the now-troubled Texas A&M journalism program celebrated its 50th anniversary. A school press release cited only three famed graduates — one of them, Lyle.
* In February 2000, Lyle (along with old “Agro-American” buddy Robert Earl Keen) returned to campus to play a benefit for the families of the 12 students who died in the collapse of the annual bonfire on campus. On stage, Lyle explained a major difference between the modern A&M campus and when he started school in ’75: “The ratio was eight male Aggies to one female Aggie then. I was able to develop a great imagination.”
* In 2001, he told NPR that he did come away from his journalism studies with something: “The main focus was usage — was really just the language.”
* Asked about choosing songwriting over reporting, he said: “As a songwriter, I’m not obligated to tell the truth. I’m not obligated to make as much sense as I would have to if I were a journalist.”