IF YOU GO
What: Lyle Lovett and His Acoustic Group
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
Admission: $57 and $43
There's a level of comfort that adds up after doing a job, doing it well and doing it for a long time.
For Lyle Lovett, the math equation includes writing about 150 songs, recording 14 albums and playing thousands of concerts over the past 27 years.
And, yes, there is a certain amount of "Wow, that long, that many songs, that many shows?" when he stops to think about it, but that doesn't happen all that often.
"I have a clear memory of all of it," he says over the phone from a tour bus rolling between concerts in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Cary, N.C. "Every part of it is important, and I just am really grateful that, after all these years, I can still go out and play."
Not to say there haven't been alterations in his game plan over those years. When his self-titled debut album came out in 1986, he was 27 years old and, like all newcomers, his focus was the job, making it last, making an actual career out of it instead of achieving flash-in-the-pan status.
"If my first record hadn't done well enough so I could get jobs, at this stage, I probably couldn't," he says. "At first, your concentration, your emphasis, your efforts are on getting successful enough to do the next one. Everything you do is either going to help you or hurt you. Your life and career is on the line every time you make a public appearance or go on television."
Now, at 55, the nerve-rattling fear has gone away, replaced by appreciation for the chance to do what he's done for 30 years. And his goal now is not to sell a million copies of his next record -- though that surely would be nice. Instead, he's concentrating on enjoying the ride.
"There's a little more security right now," he says. "The thing that's great about it is the doing of it, being able to go out and being able to sing these songs with this great band. It's not where it's going to get us; it's getting to do it."
For the next couple of weeks, he's getting to do it with an outfit that's smaller than the familiar Large Band that he's been touring and recording with through the decades. He's coming to Chattanooga with his Acoustic Group, a 50-percent-smaller version. While the Large Band never has fewer than 10 players and often has more, the all-acoustic band is five guys and Lovett.
"A lot of it is practical necessity," he says. "I work all the time, it's how I make a living, and the Large Band is so expensive to take on the road, we have to think about the dates we organize with it."
So the Large Band handles the larger, open-air venues during the summer while the Acoustic Group picks up smaller places for several weeks a year.
But with Lovett's love of classic country and gospel, country blues, Texas swing and simple, fingerpicked acoustic songs, dropping the number of musicians onstage doesn't really cut down the repertoire of songs available to the band. In fact, he says, it opens things up, gives the musicians more leeway, even leaving room for an audience request every now and then.
"We don't let limitations stop us; we'll play anything. We forge right ahead, change the arrangement a little bit," Lovett says. "They're such capable musicians, there's more space for everybody. In the Large Band, everybody is a little more specific about what they have to play."
And playing live is what's in Lovett's headlights, at least for the near future. In 2012, he ended his 26-year relationship with Curb Records, which with its subsidiary, Lost Highway, released all his studio albums. He hasn't signed a new deal yet, is in no hurry to do so and isn't even completely sure he needs a record label at this point.
"I'm trying to figure it out," he says. "I'm writing songs right now because I want to be ready to record when I finally decide what I want to do.
"I do think there are lots of opportunities these days that weren't there in the past. It's a whole new ball game. You don't have to stay with traditional business models. You can try unconventional ways. I'm actually enjoying taking a look at different options."
As for those new songs, he admits they probably won't veer off into any wild and woolly new paths, staying close to his familiar highways of human emotions, love -- both good and bad -- and interesting characters that pass through his life. All those subjects, of course, will be examined from his own slightly skewed, sardonic point of view.
"I certainly am guilty of buying the same shirt over and over," he says with a laugh.
"Writing has always been the most difficult part of the whole process for me. The continuing challenge to have a good idea is difficult.
"But even if it's just a shift in perspective that time allows you, there's a difference about them so they have a reason to exist. Otherwise, you shouldn't ever play them. I've written lots of horrible songs that have never been played."
Contact staff writer Shawn Ryan at email@example.com or 423-757-6327.