Certain Songs #1059: Lyle Lovett – “The Ballad of The Snow Leopard and The Tanqueray Cowboy”

Album: Step Inside This House
Year: 1998

Look. Lyle Lovett is one of those people who could sing the fucking phonebook and make you cry like a baby if he found the right melody for it.

So it was no surprise that his 1998 covers album, Step Inside This House, ranks among his best records, even if he didn’t write a single song. In a weird way, it was perhaps the most thematically cohesive album he’s ever recored: all of the songs were by other Texas songwriters, all of whom were influences or contemporaries.

And while even the most famous of the songwriters — Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen — were (and sadly, still are) mostly names to me, it didn’t matter on songs like “Bears,” “Rollin’ By” and David Rodriguez’s supernaturally lovely “The Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy.”

Framed by a guitar lick that felt as old as the hills and as fresh as the snow that covered them, “The Ballad of The Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy” completely kills me every single time Lyle goes up for the chorus.

But lately I’ve had something on my mind
It’s growing stronger all the time
Calling out when I’m alone
But I’m a poet
And I’m bound to walk the line
Between the real and the sublime
And give the muses back their own

One of the things about Lyle’s version: it’s slow and unhurried, especially vocally. And that’s how he finds the combination of real and sublime that, was frankly missing from any of the recordings I could find of Rodriguez doing it.

Which is, of course, what a great singer does: find the nuances in a song that mere mortals could never discern, and then shows those nuances to us as part of everything else that money just won’t buy.

“The Ballad of The Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy”

“The Ballad of The Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy” performed live in 1998

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