Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you “Penguins,” one of out-and-out funkiest songs ever laid down by someone generally classified as a country artist.
But if you took a country music fan – the Coors Light-drinking, NASCAR-watching, truck-driving, ATV riding type of country music fan – and asked him about Lyle Lovett, chances are he’d look at you like my dog does when he’s confused about what I’m asking him to do.
That’s because on the radar screen of your average “hot” country radio listener, Lovett isn’t even a blip. He’s too funny looking (real country stars are pretty-boy handsome with a rustic edge), he’s too bluesy (real country stars have twang galore and don’t use all those annoying horns and … what the hell is that – a cello?) and he sings about the wrong stuff (no songs about getting wasted on cheap beer from a Solo cup while partying in a field), etc.
Add to that the fact that some of his songs are actually funny, obviously taking an opportunity to tweak the country music stereotypes that remain so pervasive, and he seems tailor made to piss off typical country fans.
On the other hand, if you as people who write about music and work in the music biz, they’ll say Lovett is in fact one of the best modern examples of how country music is rendered. They’ll tick off his excellent songwriting (ranked among the best of his Texas peers), his dry sense of humor, his unique voice and delivery, and his ability to switch back and forth between traditional country structure, the blues, jazz, swing and pop. And a few might even mention his stellar fashion sense, noting that he can pull off a bespoke Calvin Klein suit (Klein is his uncle, by the way) with a cowboy hat and boots like no one else I’ve ever seen.
So you’ve got two groups telling everyone what you aren’t and what you are. What’s an artist to do?
Lovett’s answer is usually “ignore it and do what I want.” As a result he gets limited airplay on radio – because radio thrives on being able to pigeonhole an artist. If he’s not country, what is he? Americana? Roots? What do those things even mean to someone who’s not an Adult Album Alternative radio station program director? Incidentally, AAA radio is about the only place Lovett does get played on air, simply because the format has the flexibility (and the open-minded listeners) that allows them to throw the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and someone like Lovett into the same 15-minute bloc of music.
The funny thing is, if you happen to come across someone who says she’s a Lyle Lovett fan, it usually doesn’t matter to them what box the radio programmers and record producers want to put him in. He is whatever he needs to be at any moment to satisfy his creative jones. It feels like Lovett tours almost constantly, and in the cruel reality of today’s music industry, he probably makes more money on the road than he does in record sales. But when you’ve got a legion of loving listeners ready to come see you at any given opportunity, the compensation (both financially and creatively) is significant.
So to you the writer, struggling with where you fit in this genre-obsessed literary landscape, I suggest working on your 30-second pitch rather than trying to figure out what genre box you should check. Tell people what your story is about, rather than what box you think it belongs in. Sure, you should know your general audience and respect them, but don’t pander to them. What I find as a reader is that I respect a writer’s style, voice, sense of humor and general outlook far more than whether he or she is hard sci-fi, urban fantasy or literary fiction.
Was there a time when I would have outright rejected Lyle Lovett for being a country guy? Sure – when I was 14 and thought country was just for bonehead rednecks. But now I’ve lived pretty much half my life, been through lost loves, two marriages, a divorce, and and two kids. I know what speaks to me and what I like and I have the self confidence to branch out into things that are new. The same goes for my reading. And the same goes for many readers. They don’t stick to one thing, but they often stick to an author through his or her tries at lots of different things – as long as that author speaks to them.
So do what you will do, and just do it well. You don’t have to slot yourself into a genre to find a specific audience. If what you write, sing, paint or sculpt touches hearts, broadens minds and brings smiles to faces, your incredibly diverse audience will find you.