It's hard to figure out exactly what to make of modern country's flirtations with genres outside Nashville's rustic confines. Taylor Swift's Red incorporated an (ever-so-slight) dubstep wobble into her pop-country frame. The Zac Brown Band is covering Metallica in concert. Former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker gets as much mileage out of his old alt-bro hits as he does his new country ones, and rising stars like Brantley Gilbert show off as much nu-metal as pedal steel. "Accidental Racist," Brad Paisley's blundering buddy-cop outing with LL Cool J, is an unavoidable trainwreck and undoubtedly will go down as one of 2013's worst hick-hop singles in a year when that designation isn't a rarity or outlier at all.
In light of such general weirdness, it's tempting to suggest building a "dang fence" to keep the "real country" safe from its mutant offspring. But that would put someone like Lyle Lovett out of a job, and considering the care and craft he's exhibited for more than three decades, that would be a shame.
Lovett's latest, 2012's Release Me, is every bit the mutt those other guys' albums are, grafting branches of jazz, blues, swing, and folk into Lovett's country and Western tree, but it's a sly, quiet union — not the boisterous combination of current CMT stars. It's a nuanced blending of sounds. Like Willie before him, Lyle knows how to swing, and he makes it seem effortless.
Emerging from a wave of country outsiders (you could call it alt-country if you really wanted to) that included Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely, Gary Clark, and Townes Van Zandt, Lovett found mainstream success in the mid-'80s, backed by members of Phoenix band J. David Sloan and the Rogues. Release Me finds him as consistent a storyteller as his self-titled debut.
See "White Boy Lost in the Blues" for a glimpse into the man's self-deprecating humor. "You bought you a six-string, you bought you a great big amp," he sings, the song's character not quite succeeding at singing "like Muddy Waters." And while the song's protagonist doesn't achieve the blues authenticity he aims for, Lovett's band stings, with sawing fiddle and burning electric guitar. Lovett's reading of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is similarly bluesy, but where Berry's rendition is all bluster, Lovett takes it slow and low. His voice trembles just a little as he sings "The judge's wife told the district attorney you better free that brown-eyed man." It's a rock 'n' roll tune done as a heartbreaker.
On the title track, Lovett teams with another songwriter who proudly flies in the face of some of the genre's confines, k.d. lang. Characteristically, it's one of the album's most traditional moments, a classic cheating ballad with weeping pedal steel and Texas Playboy fiddles. "I have found a new love, dear / And I'll always want her near," the duo harmonizes. "Release me, darling / Let me go." It's a near-perfect tune, suave and restrained.
Release Me, like the rest of Lovett's oeuvre, might fall more in line with the Prairie Home Companion aesthetic than the CMT one, but his catalog also is a testament to country sounds that don't cling too hard to the idea of what "country" has to be. Like today's country radio dominators, Lovett has open ears and a wide gaze. Don't build that fence too quick, or we risk losing guys like Lovett who know how to do it right.