String Fever

Once upon a time a not-so-sought-after Lyle Lovett went to Nashville's Opryland to hawk his act at a talent-buyers showcase. Not yet the Grammy-getting, style-setting Hollywood property he's become, he hoped to impress the promoter-packed audience. And he did. "Afterwards we heard someone say he felt sorry for that fella with the bongos and viola," recalls cellist John Hagen, who, along with conga player James Gilmer, had accompanied Lovett. "They had sympathy for Lyle, but they didn't know what the hell we were playing. So I felt sorry for him, too."

No one could possibly feel sorry for Lyle Lovett these days, but there still are audiences that don't know what the hell Hagen is playing. A for-instance: the mannerless bunch in Cardiff, Wales, last year who pointed, howled at, and otherwise heckled him as he took the stage with Lovett's fourteen-piece Large Band. "I don't even think they yelled anything about the cello," Hagen says. "I don't think they knew what it was. But they knew it was something that shouldn't have been there."

Fans lately have dubbed him "the psychedelic cellist," but it would be more apt to call him a guerrilla, tearing through the jazz/gospel/country-colored fabric of Lovett's live shows to lob a musical Molotov and then duck back into camouflage: starched and sober stage demeanor, painstaking posture, politely arranged face.

Whatever he's called, Hagen has found himself at the cellistic vanguard, highly visible thanks to his long association with Lovett, and highly notable thanks to his own peculiar sensibilities. "When people come to me and say they have the perfect cello song, usually I'm not interested," he says. "Because it's just going to be a plaintive melody, and cello is capable of so much more."

In the jazz and classical arenas, that's a given. But when pop deigns to give cello some play, he says, it's typically as part of a string section. The options have been limited, the instrument has been pigeonholed as background buzz or schmaltz.

Not so on Lovett's stage. There cello gets to stretch its schizoid self, going variously gritty, flitty, creaking, eerie. One minute it's chickenfried as a cheap steak, rivaling fiddle as the country string of choice. The next it's shrewish enough to shout down a screaming Strat A and every last loudmouth in any audience. "This is not a wimpy instrument at all," Hagen insists. He proves it, too, at every stop of the tour bus, without the aid of complex effects. "I use acoustic equipment," he says. "It's not like I'm using gadgetry or gizmos or changing the sound that much. I think it's more in the ear. I mean, you could play country music on a tuba if you got the right person doing it. Or on a piccolo. Somebody could make it work."

When it comes to cello, that somebody happens to be Hagen.
How he hears is who he is: a product of the West, reared in the reaches of Wyoming, then drug off to Huntsville, Texas, by his conductor father, who had taken a job at Sam Houston State University. "He was going all over trying to recruit strings for his orchestra," Hagen explains, "so he wasn't gonna let me get away." When the bachelor's degree was done, Hagen went to the University of Texas for his master's, managing to drop out three hours shy of finishing. It wasn't necessarily a dumb move, considering the drop zone: Austin, the self-proclaimed "live music capital of the world."

"I used to drag my cello in every chance I could to whatever club and see if I could sit in," Hagen remembers. Most musicians were too curious to do anything but let him. Among them was Nanci Griffith A in 1978 Hagen played on her debut album. Soon after he joined an eccentric (banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, cello) electric string band with a solid statewide following. By the time Texas A&M student Lovett met him in 1980, Hagen was nothing short of a sonic jigsaw. "Lyle asked me if I would be willing to transcribe his songs, 'cause he didn't read or write music and he knew that I did," Hagen says. "This was, of course, way before any record deal. And we still do some of those songs. The first song I ever heard him play was 'If I Had a Boat' and we still play that."

Some things never change.
And lots of other things do.
"When I started with Lyle back in '81," Hagen says, "we'd play little folk clubs in Houston, Austin, coffee houses, you know, where maybe fifteen or twenty people would show up, there'd be no cover charge." Last year Lovett and his band played 4000-seat theaters (including the Coral Springs City Centre), 10,000-seat amphitheaters, 50,000-seat stadiums. The current tour, which begins this week and runs through mid-August, will put the cellist on more than 50 stages throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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Deborah Block