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Lyle Lovett's deep roots inform music, life

By Todd Leopold, CNN
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Conversation with Lyle Lovett
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lyle Lovett courteous, professorial, wry in person
  • Singer's latest album, "Natural Forces," features songs by Texas songwriters
  • Lovett has deep roots in the state; farm has been in family for generations
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Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Lyle Lovett arrives at Atlanta's Tabernacle concert hall dapper in a tweed jacket and dark turtleneck. He's pipe-cleaner thin, quick to say hello and possessed of an old-fashioned courtesy.

He's earned great praise as a singer and songwriter of cleanly written, sometimes dryly humorous songs over a three-decade career, but as he sits on a stool on the dim stage, a piano tuner tinkling stray keys behind him, he seems closer to a professor, or a writer.

He reels off facts about his beloved home state of Texas, solicitously correcting preconceptions about its people. He smiles at certain questions as if entertaining a private joke.

And as Lovett, 52, talks about his career and his new album, "Natural Forces" (Lost Highway), it's with rigor and thoughtfulness -- calling attention to songwriters he admires, addressing the significance of his roots, chatting about agriculture and family and old friends.

The songs on "Natural Forces" are all by Texas songwriters, including five written or co-written by Lovett. They're played with traditional country instrumentation, though Lovett long ago left the label "country singer" behind: "My music has always been sort of in-between categories. Sometimes record stores -- back when there were record stores -- they'd put my records in the country music section, but other record stores would put my records in the pop or even the rock section," he says, adding, "As long as it's in the store somewhere, I'm OK with it."

The new album, he says, "gave me a chance to record some of my favorite songs from my favorite Texas singer-songwriters. ... I looked for songs that I'd played in the course of my career, that have always been a part of my music, that would complement the songs I'd written or co-written."

Take "Bayou Song." Lovett -- who pronounces the word "bye-yo," East Texas style, and not "bye-you," as Louisianians do -- recalls the writer, Don Sanders, as one of the Houston-area singer-songwriters he emulated in the late '70s. "Bayou Song," with its evocations of turtles, snakes, coon tracks and "slow, dark, vertigo water" "brought back memories," Lovett says.

Many of those memories lead back to Klein, Texas, where Lovett was raised. The town, named for his great-great grandfather, is now a Houston exurb -- about 30 miles northwest of the "Bayou City" -- but was a small agricultural community when Lovett was growing up.

"It became more profitable for old farmers to sell their land instead of farm it," he says. "Instead of vegetables springing up out of the ground, subdivisions started springing up."

It almost happened to his family, which sold the farm after his grandmother died in 1979. But Lovett and his uncle, Calvin, managed to buy it back in 1985, and have lived there ever since. Calvin runs a cow-calf operation on the land, and Lyle returns there after months on the road.

"It still gives me a great sense of pride," Lovett says, to be "able to hang on to what was part of my grandfather's farm place and to keep it productive."

His musical roots run equally deep, and are as diverse as the state he calls home. "I had free access to [my parents'] record collection as I was growing up," he says. "They were big Nat King Cole fans. They had Ray Charles records. Big band. Lefty Frizzell. Carl Smith. Merle Haggard. Their record collection was mixed up like that, stylistically, and that's probably where my taste comes from."

When he journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee, in the mid-'80s, he was lumped in with "new country" -- artists such as k.d. lang and Steve Earle -- but also gained popularity among pop and rock fans for his wry songwriting. In the '90s he did some acting -- mainly for director Robert Altman, whom he calls "a great, great teacher" -- and became tabloid fodder thanks to his short-lived marriage to Julia Roberts. (He's been engaged to April Kimble, who co-wrote a song on "Natural Forces," since 2006.)

He's now the sort of singer-songwriter he emulated, though he hasn't lost his admiration for them -- indicated by the care he gives the songs on "Natural Forces" and praise for the musicians he plays with.

"It's like getting to go to rock 'n' roll fantasy camp," he says of playing alongside such names as drummer Russ Kunkel, who's worked with James Taylor and George Harrison.

As he concludes the interview, his show is less than two hours away. But he gets up unhurriedly, with firm handshakes all around. It's another day in another city on another rambling stage, but it's not a bad life.

"I sort of cringe when I hear myself say the word 'work,' " he says. "Getting to do something you love to do never really feels like work."