Though his 1986 self-titled debut had made for a successful enough introduction to Nashville, it was Pontiac that announced Lyle Lovett as not just a voice worth listening to, but a vivid writer who wormed his way into your imagination. There was an old-fashioned twang to the swinging rhythms and weepy steel guitar of Lyle Lovett, but its production was also very of the time, electrified and synthesized and ready for the stage at Farm Aid. Pontiac stripped it all down to the core, developing the warm, organic sound Lovett would continue to refine, a blend between the acoustic intimacy of coffee-shop folk and symphonic jazz. By embracing his many idiosyncrasies as both a performer and persona, Lovett only seemed to make himself more loveable, and the unsinkable eccentricity of Pontiac made it a surprise hit outside country. The record may have had hybrid appeal, but it was still unmistakably Texan; somehow, Lovett’s refusal to take his boots off no matter where he roamed made him all the more appealing, even exotic, to those who might normally look down on cowpokes.
As a long, tall Texan born of upstanding Lutheran stock, Lovett had a surprising capacity for subverting relationship tropes in country music. In Lovett’s songs, the trappings of cowboy life can function as fetish objects. From the opening fiddle licks of “Cowboy Man,” the Western-swing wet dream that introduces his debut album, he gleefully embraced innuendo, turning a cowhand’s trusty lariat into an instrument of sexual bondage. The narrator of 1996’s “Don’t Touch My Hat” clings to his Stetson like a waifu body pillow, willingly choosing a hat that fits right over romantic fulfillment; the premeditated murderer of “L.A. County” finds platonic companionship with a firearm who “did not say much” on the drive to their deadly final destination. In the universe of Lovett, like the woeful wooden “Kaw-Liga” that Hank once sang of, objects are personified and persons objectified: the bleary-eyed bar patrons “unplugged” like a neon sign on “Closing Time,” or a woman played with like a turntable on 1994’s “Record Lady.”
There’s a casually absurd, almost childlike surrealism to Lovett, a man who has written songs about his affection for penguins and his distaste for pants. That borderline cartoonishness extended to his visual presentation, namely his hair, which from the inauguration of his career would be discussed by critics almost as much as his music itself. Robert Draper’s iconic 1992 Texas Monthly profile of Lovett would devote lots of ink not just to the “thatch of nuclear-radiated alfalfa sprouts” atop his head, but his face, which “suggests the elegance of an elephant tusk.” A review of Pontiac for the Associated Press posited him as “more like a Pet Shop Boy than an Oak Ridge Boy,” while Hank Hill put it more bluntly on an episode of King of the Hill: “Get out of my way, rooster boy.” When k.d. lang first met Lovett backstage at the Country Music Awards, she allegedly asked him, “Did you get into Eraserhead for free?” No matter which descriptor you chose, Lovett’s hair stuck out like a water tower on the horizon, far too large to be contained by even a ten-gallon hat. In some way, he seemed to mock his home state’s preoccupation with its own perception of big-ness, his hair an obelisk to the stubborn and endlessly self-mythologizing Texan, climbing ever higher alongside the oil wells and windmills and rockets that reach into the sky.