Certain Songs #1054: Lyle Lovett – “L.A. County”

Album: Pontiac
Year: 1987

On the short list of Prettiest Songs Ever Recorded, Murder Ballad Division, “L.A. County” is an absolutely towering masterwork, and — I’ve come to realize — the best song that Lyle Lovett ever wrote.

That’s a whole lot to unpack, of course, so let’s just start with the chorus, which rings in my head anytime I’m driving into Los Angeles on a cold clear night.

And the lights of L.A. County
Look like diamonds in the sky
When you’re driving through the hours
With an old friend at your side

There’s that part, halfway through the song, where it breaks down into a stop time during the chorus — almost turning it into an anthem about the beauty of Los Angeles — and if you’re not really paying attention to the rest of the song you might be excused for thinking that was the point of the song. But, of course, if you are, you realize that he’s just announcing that he’s finally arrived at his destination.

Which is the wedding of the woman he loves to someone else.

She left Dallas for California
With an old friend by her side
Well he did not say much
But one year later
He’d ask her to be his wife

That’s his reason for driving from Houston — did they break up because she was in Dallas and he was in Houston? is just one of the unanswered questions — to Los Angeles. And he also had an old friend by his side. But probably not one he was going to marry.

Well it did not say much
But it was a beauty
Of a coal black .45


And as he walks into the church, “L.A. County” stops in its tracks. As he looks at the woman he loves, he’s transfixed by her happiness.

And as she stood there at the altar
All dressed in her gown of white
Her face was bright as stars a’shining
Like I’d dreamed of all my life

And I think that maybe, just maybe, he’ll feel overjoyed for her. Every single time.

You know, one of the songs that “L.A. County” reminds me of is “Long White Veil,” where the protagonist is found of guilty of murder because he refused to use his alibi of sleeping with this best friend’s wife. In both cases, the guy in the song was faced with what he perceived was an impossible choice.

And so back in that church somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, the band picks back up and the inevitable happens:

And they kissed each other
And they turned around
And they saw me standing in the aisle
Well I did not say much
I just stood there watching
As that .45 told them goodbye

One of the more brilliant things about “L.A. County” is how it modulates at the moment he guns them down. Not only that, the steel guitar — which has been adding only occasional commentary — goes absolutely nuts, like it’s trying to distract us so Lyle could make his getaway. No such luck, though, because with the steel guitar bouncing off the walls and the entire congregation on backing vocals, he sings a variant of the chorus.

And the lights of L.A. County
Look like diamonds in the sky
When you’re kneeling at the altar
With an old friend at your side

Cue camera, backing slowly out of the church, turning slowly to reveal the lights in the hills of the County of Los Angeles, as we fade to black.

Fan-made video for “L.A. County”

“L.A. County” performed live

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