Since his self-titled debut album in 1986, Lyle Lovett has established himself as a distinctive voice in American music — a lanky Texan with a mischievous grin who follows in the Lone Star tradition of stubbornly individualistic talents, from Bob Wills to Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton to Guy Clark. With a style that ranges from stark folk narratives to robust swing and R&B delivered with his Large Band — and sly humor — Lovett has had a richly rewarding musical career spiced by the occasional acting gig.
Busy as he is, however, Lovett still makes time to hit the road regularly with his old pal John Hiatt. The 53-year-old Texan and the 58-year-old Indiana native may have different personalities and different musical approaches, but they have developed quite a rapport since first performing together in 1989, and that’s evident in their loose and spontaneous acoustic performances.
“It’s a really great chance for me to ask him about his songs and his process,” Lovett says from Austin, Texas, where he was recording a song for a Guy Clark tribute album. “For me, that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of doing this. I get to sit on stage and interview him, basically. ... And he surprises me every night.”
“There’s nothing more inspiring to me than to be in the company of someone who’s fully engaged in what he’s doing, and who’s really talented. ... Sometimes, it makes you want to put your guitar down and stop. But ultimately it makes you want to take it back out and try to do something.”
Lovett is too modest to say it, but other artists no doubt look at the four-time Grammy winner the same way. His most recent album, 2009’s “Natural Forces,” once again displays his range. It presents topflight original songs while also showcasing his skills as an interpreter by spotlighting numbers from Texas tunesmiths who influenced him, including Eric Taylor, Robert Earl Keen and Townes Van Zandt.
“These are all songs that have been a part of my musical life since I was 18 or 20,” Lovett says. The songwriters are artists he got to see and in some cases know. “Behind their musical impact, they had a personal impact on me as well.”
In December, Lovett appeared with Helen Hunt in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” He had a musical as well as an acting role that allowed him to perform some of his own songs.
It was his first formal stage role after several appearances in movies and on TV. He’s open to more acting, but Lovett, who is in the early stages of making his next album, says any roles have to fit around his music schedule.
“It’s great fun, and I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve gotten to do it. But playing and singing and making up songs is my real job.”