The Road to Ensenada, Lyle Lovett

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“He’s so…asymmetrical.” This was how a friend of mine once described his introduction to Lyle Lovett. My first introduction to Lyle was through the tabloids wondering how he managed to marry Julia Roberts. Then one day rummaging through the old Davis Kidd Bookstore in Green Hills, Tennessee, I found The Road to Ensenada in one of the listening stations. So I listened. I had no idea, honestly, what to expect.

Lyle Lovett, Road To EnsenadaIt was asymmetrical–a little off balance, but with the kind of skill so that you knew he was not only doing it on purpose, but that he could also do it all day long. Track 1, “Don’t Touch My Hat”, is about a guy who stole his girl and his hat, and he wants his hat back. Incidentally, it is the only song I can think of that manages to incorporate hat size in a meaningful way: “If you plead not guilty, I’ll be the judge/ We don’t need no jury to decide because/ I wear a seven and you’re out of order/ ‘Cause I can tell from here you’re a seven and a quarter.” As I stood there in the book store, I had to go back and hear that again. Did he really say…?

Half a song in, I grabbed a copy and bought it, thinking I was getting my hands on something witty.

And I was, but as I listened, and then got more of his work, I realized not only that he was witty, he was also brooding, and whimsical, and serious…and very strange to look at. And the quality of his work is top shelf. I’ve described him as being to country music what Sting is to pop music–in there when he wants to be, but obviously capable of way more depth and substance than what you typically find on the radio.

It hard to review just one Lyle Lovett record because they all seem to have a personality of their own, and Lyle achieves something very difficult–he can own whatever he records, whether he wrote it or not. One minute he’s folk, another straight up country. Then he’s gospel, then big band. Then American classic, then Latin. But he owns it all in such a convincing way that you never feel like he’s losing himself in this variety. It’s like some combination of all these IS his style. Asymmetrical.

So since I want to limit this to just one disc, I’m going with the one that introduced me to Lyle, and served as, I think, the best preparation for whatever else you get your hands on by him.

Oh, and one more thing. Lyle put a hidden track on this disc before hidden tracks were cool. And its not a throwaway song either. Free stuff!

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


8 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    My first exposure to Lyle Lovett was with this record. In 1998 I toured with Caedmon’s Call for about fifty shows, and every day the sound guy, Rod, would equalize the room with this album. Every time I hear it I remember the afternoon setup in the empty auditoriums, the anticipation of the crowd and the music to come.

    Who knew that that weird looking guy who managed to wed Julia Roberts had a voice like that? His songs are in turns clever and heartbreaking, and are sometimes just as weird as his hair. I played this record the other day with my sons in the car, and Aedan, who’s always listening, asked what every song was about. I explained as best as I could to an eight-year-old what “You can have my girl but don’t touch my hat” means. And then he wanted to know–like the rest of us–what’s so great about Texas that you’d write a whole song about it? Explaining the one-eyed Fiona was interesting too. (Fiona is Julia Roberts’s middle name, from what I hear.)

    It was especially fun to rope in Lyle’s piano player, Matt Rollings, to play on a few of my records. Matt (who looks eerily like Gary Oldman) played on Carried Along and Clear to Venus, which includes “Let Me Sing” and “Venus”, two songs that highlight his playing. Matt was made obsolete in my world, however, when good ol’ Ben Shive came along.

    The last thing I’ll say about Lyle: my favorite record other than this one is Pontiac.

  2. russramsey

    Pontiac is a great record, as is Joshua Judges Ruth. The main reason I wanted to start off writing about Lyle is because he surprises you with these chilling songs every so often that, becasue they’re in the context they’re in, next to songs with titles such as “I Married Her Just Becasue She Look Like You” or “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To,” come across like Flannery O’Connor stories. A friend of mine calls it “grotesque.”

    O’Connor deserves her own post, but reading, for example, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, its a tragic story that didn’t take me where I thought it would. It ends with a truer revelation of the human condition- the brokenness and deep rooted effects of living in a broken and fallen world.

    I think of Lyle’s songs “Pontiac,” “LA County,” “Family Reserve,” “Creeps Like Me” and “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind.” These songs take you someplace you didn’t expect to go. And you don’t know exactly what to do with them either: do you laugh (if you do, its nervous laughter), do you cringe, do you assume he’s just being gratuitous?

    I think if all Lyle was was clever or witty, I’d have lost interest long ago. But he’s got a couple of “voices” that seem to work together to make you feel you’re in the hands of an old soul, and a deliberate story teller.

  3. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    “Asymmetrical.” That’s the perfect word. And as much as Lovett is a song craftsman, it’s that off-beat, doing-things-his-own-way propensity that made me take notice of his work way back around 1990. My friend and former business partner Sam introduced me to Lyle. We used to listen to the cassette Lyle Lovett and His Large Band on the way to and from the gym.

    First, any songwriter that incorporates a reference to cheeseburgers in a song(Here I Am) can’t be all bad. And I really appreciated his tendency for being original, especially in the way that he meshed genres, as if getting a song played on the radio was the least of his concerns.

    On Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, here’s a project that featured blues (The Blues Walk), straight ahead, traditional country (Stand by Your Man, the Tammy Wynette classic), acoustic (Nobody Knows Me, and If You Were to Wake Up), swing (I Know You Know) and everything in between. Asymmetrical, indeed.

  4. evie

    Oh, Lyle, be still my beating heart. If he hadn’t already found a girl (my age, no less), I’d be in that long line of ladies who think he’s quite a fine catch. I’d marry him in a second that’s as quick as his smile is crooked and sassy.

    I could go on for miles about my love for this man and his writing prowess, but I’ll just sum it up in the pure genius that is displayed in this one simple lyric from his Joshua Judges Ruth record:

    “Honey put down that flyswatter
    and pour me some ice water.”

    Lyle, I love you.

  5. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    So for those of you keeping score at home, I say you can’t go wrong with “Road to Ensenada.” Andrew says the same of “Pontiac.” Curt says the same of “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.” And Evie says the same of “Joshua Judges Ruth.”

  6. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I don’t know which songs are on which album because they’re all piled together on my iPod. Can’t go wrong with any of them.

    Did anyone else happen to see Lyle’s hilarious cameo on Conan O’brian the other night?

  7. simplemindedpreacher

    Sometimes I feel like Lyle Lovett is trying to keep a big secret from the world. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “don’t listen to me, you won’t like me.” – But, behind the masquerade of him being some generic country music singer, there’s a party going on, and there aren’t very many cowboy boots in the room. My wife and I see Lyle in concert once a year, and the audience is anything but country. So is the music. Texas Swing to Jazz to Blues to Gospel to Big Band to Country (and once, there was disco – “everybody do the dinosaur”)… and all of it is masterfully orchestrated. It is, in my book, the best concert you could see. Lyle rocks!

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