When Lyle Lovett says his Large Band is “large,” he’s not kidding. At 14-strong, it’s a small army that travels across the country with him this summer, many of them musicians who have stood by his side for decades.
Sure, there are larger bands making the rounds. But to match the Texas crooner’s genre-hopping set list every night, it’s the perfect size.
“I get an opportunity to play big-band, swing, rockabilly, country, blues, folk and bluegrass — all in one night,” says drummer Russ Kunkel, who’s recorded with everyone from Bob Dylan and B.B. King to Linda Ronstadt and former fiancée Carly Simon.
Over the years Lovett, 56, has always been generous about giving interviews when he rolls through Sonoma County. On one tour, he even invited a video crew to film him riding a tiny scooter through Santa Rosa wearing a big “Texas” helmet.
But, since we talked to Lovett last November when he shared a stage with John Hiatt, it seemed like a good idea to shine a light on a few of the guys in his Large Band. Before they play the Green Music Center Sunday night, we chatted with a drummer who had a cameo in “This is Spinal Tap,” a pianist Lovett nicknamed “Snake” and the brother of Alison Krauss on bass.
Russ Kunkel, drums
Years in the Large Band: 10.
Favorite songs to play: “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”
On meeting Lyle: “I got called in on a Grateful Dead tribute album; we were recording ‘Friend of the Devil.’ I’d always been a huge fan. I just thought he was one of the most professional artists I’d ever worked with and I’ve worked with a lot of people.”
Banter between songs: “He appears on stage to be a little shy and vulnerable. When you can show an audience your vulnerability, they inherently fall in love with you.”
One of a kind: “What’s great about him is nobody sounds like Lyle Lovett. A lot of people sound like other people or are in the same place. But he’s incredibly unique. I like being a part of something that’s really unique. That’s like nothing else out there.”
Kunkel’s other claim to fame: He played Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs (“who dies from choking on someone else’s vomit”) in the 1984 mockumentary film, “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Matt Rollings, piano
Years in the band: More than 30 (off and on).
Favorite songs to play: “Pontiac,” “North Dakota,” “I’ve Been to Memphis.”
On meeting Lyle: “I was in a band called J. David Sloan and the Rogues and we wound up at this goofy festival gig in Luxembourg one summer (in the early 1980s). Lyle was there playing solo and he was getting lost in the shuffle with his acoustic guitar. A week in, he approached us and asked if we’d be willing to learn a handful of his songs and back him up.”
First impression: “He was soft-spoken and very dry in his wit.”
What sets Lyle apart: “He’s really generous with his musicians. He not only wants everybody to play, he insists upon it. He really wants everyone to step up and share the spotlight with him, which is not necessarily that common.”