How many folk songs begin with some variation of the phrase “Here’s my story, I’ll tell it to you true?” It’s as old as a wandering bard and a set-up for every tall tale, fable, and mischievous yarn spun. There’s something comfortable about a familiar story or song. I suppose it’s why we listen to the same records for years without tiring of them. There’s also though, a fine line between working in tradition and becoming cliche or an anachronism.
To be cliche is to also be completely unoriginal. It’s a blonde joke. Worse than being offensive, because offensive can be hilarious, they’re just not funny.
We’ve also all seen wonderfully rendered anachronisms. Those museum pieces of times gone by. Earnest re-tellings of bawdy songs, or jokes explained and put into historical context. Have we always had boring torch bearers of history or is this an illness of a post-modern world in decline? It can’t even truthfully be called nostalgia. That at least has a wistfulness to it, an emotional connection to a place or time, be it experienced or imagined.
The folk tradition (did that just make you shudder?) in my mind is simple. There’s history and memory, foundations to stand upon. It doesn’t live in a vacuum, it shifts and squirms around and teases us. It gives us something familiar in a new way.
Lyle Lovett knows where he comes from and seemingly, also knows where he is going. Born outside of Houston in 1957 in a town founded by his great-great grandfather amongst fences and fields the dust of that place still fills his voice. This is a man who swatted a mad bull on the head with his hat antagonizing it to release his pinned down uncle and was rewarded with a broken leg for his efforts.
Since the 1980’s Lovett has delighted and perplexed listeners with his sideways songs. He’s country because that’s what he is, not because a consultant told him to be that or he sounded like a country singer. He’s country in the same way that Jim Reeves and Ray Price and Charlie Rich will always be country even at their crooniest. He has no other way to be. The bull story illustrates that. Since 1986 he’s released 13 albums. His latest release, Natural Forces, is bittersweet. Filled with melancholy ballads like “Whooping Crane” and “Empty Blue Shoes” that remind me of his most still moments as a singer like Pontiac’s “Simple Song,” and punctuated with kickers like “Farmer Brown” and “It’s Rock and Roll.” There’s a sublime version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” which maybe I’ll write about someday, but not now. We’re talking cliches and there’s nothing cliche about Van Zandt.
On the album there’s two versions of a song Lovett has performed live for years. A fan favorite as it were, widely bootlegged and captured on youtube “Pantry” finally finds an album home. The song kicks off with the line “My dear I have something to ask and I’ll try to get it right.” Here’s his story, he’ll tell it to us true.
He then drops in a reference to the Light Crust Doughboys and Martha White, which is a bit showy of course, but we love it. It’s a long standing country tradition to drop in references of those who came before. Lovett does one better though. Here’s a song essentially about food and he name drops the Doughboys and Martha White. Nothing is accidental in his writing. “Pantry” is almost filled with cliches. They’re more reference points though, sly nods to things we know. Take the line “Oh the way to someone’s heart dear/That old expression’s true. He doesn’t need to tell us the cliche we already know. The whole thing though is really just a set-up for a bad joke. It could easily be a pun gone wrong like saying “Life’s a Ditch” which is at best vaguely amusing for about as long as a fire fly lights. On “Pantry” however, Lovett takes the cliche “keep it in your pants” and flips it inside out into a song about overeating and cheating. It works like an Escher drawing. It keeps spiraling over on itself until the first joke is last.
How many bawdy folk and blues songs use food as a euphemism for sex? Chalk one more up, sort of. That’s why this song is so funny. It doesn’t just do that, like it doesn’t just rest on a bad pun or a country tradition of infidelity. It does all of this, sometimes at odds with each other and simultaneously. Lovett is good, good, good at this.
Tradition isn’t something to leave behind discarded. It doesn’t have to be a relic of the past though either. I don’t know if “Pantry” will ever be anything more than a fun two-step for Lyle Lovett fans, but it makes me laugh and does what it’s supposed to do. I’ve never been one though, to go hungry and this makes me wanna go get a girl and dance.
Post Scriptus ~ Alec Wilkinson does a fine profile on the singer and the bull incident in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/01/040301fa_fact1