Song 161: Lyle Lovett, “Family Reserve” (1992)


As a freelance writer, I’ve had the tremendous privilege to talk to some of my favorite musicians about their songs. These artists have included Aimee Mann, Carl Newman, and Mike Mills (who was extremely patient as I struggled to find a spot at Target Corporation’s headquarters where I could get a decent signal). The most meaningful conversation I had was with Lyle Lovett.

I’ve been a Lovett fan since high school, due to the influence of my then-friend (and now wife) Lizzie, who had been a fan for a few years. When I asked her last fall if she had any questions for Lyle, she said to tell him that he had more to do with getting us together than anybody else. And it’s true: the music of Lyle Lovett, with its beauty, surprises, and (above all) humor, drew us together. I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t many teenaged Lyle Lovett fans, and it was exciting to be a fan club of two.

I don’t understand why everybody isn’t a Lyle Lovett fan. Most people think of his music as “country,” which it certainly is, but it’s also jazz, folk, rock … the best adjective may simply be “American,” as Lovett’s songs are all stories about what it’s like to live here, using the musical vocabularies of this country.

Nobody being interviewed by a guy in a conference room (or in Lovett’s case, a guy stuck in his house during Hurricane Sandy) has an obligation to be polite, which makes Lyle Lovett’s congeniality all the more impressive. He seemed genuinely excited to be talking about his work, and when I passed on Lizzie’s message, he was sincerely touched and proceeded to ask about my family. To call Lyle Lovett a nice guy is an understatement.

Though outside the topic of the record he was promoting, Lovett generously tolerated my fanboy questions about his songs. In the case of “Family Reserve,” I only mentioned how much I loved it before he started talking about its lyrics, which are essentially a list of family members and their causes of death. He said all the lyrics are true, with the exception of his Uncle Eugene’s date of death, the year of which was changed to accommodate the number of syllables needed for the verse.

Lovett is a very funny but very economical writer; “Family Reserve” doesn’t use more words than necessary to outline an elaborate familial history (using what Jay-Z calls the “minor mythologies that every family has”). Knowing that poor, drunk Brian Temple and Calloway (who was done in by a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich) really died the way Lovett describes makes me uncomfortable laughing about their respective demises, but something tells me that was Lovett’s goal all along. He loves making people laugh, but any artist worth his or her salt will make the listener question their role in the art. Lyle Lovett does this with nearly every song.


One Comment on “Song 161: Lyle Lovett, “Family Reserve” (1992)”

  1. Rosalyn says:

    Dave, this is me being late in thanking you for this post. I read it on the way home from an ACL taping while in line at a drive-through veggie burger place (true story!) and whistled it to myself driving through Austin back home (since singing is not my strong point.) This album is blended so thoroughly into my brain and family life and growing up that I actually had no idea what year it was from (despite having finally buying my own copy on CD after moving out of my parents’ home and away from the cassette tape that alternated between the family room and the Plymouth Voyager.) This song particularly. I didn’t know, either, that everything in it was real. My mom always used to sing the PB&J line with perfect solemnity and then crack herself up afterward. I love what you said about the oddness this creates. Thanks for making my day better!

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