For singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, the material spoils of a three-decade career -- including a handful of gold albums and Grammy awards -- are merely secondary benefits to the real prize.
"Early on, when people would ask me what I would consider success to be, my answer was always the same," says the 51-year-old Lovett. "To be successful is to be able to keep doing what you like to do; for me its making records and playing shows. I've gotten to do just that, and I am so grateful."
Lovett, who appeared in Memphis earlier this year with his friend and fellow songwriter John Hiatt, returns to town for a performance at Minglewood Hall on Tuesday backed by His Large Band.
The show will find Lovett previewing material from a forthcoming album, due this fall. The disc will feature a mix of new originals
and covers of his favorite Texas singer-songwriters, much like his 1998 effort Step Inside This House.
Since the beginning of his career, Lovett has managed to marry the folk-country traditions of Texas tunesmiths like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark with his own musical eclecticism -- a gamut that runs from jazz to blues to gospel to swing.
"Down here in Texas, it's always felt like there aren't any rules," says Lovett of his approach. "If you can think it up and do it, then it's all right to do. An independent way of thinking, not wanting to hang onto the thing that's the norm, that's the mindset that went into the music."
For Lovett, that idea is embodied by his live show, which features a robust and musically flexible big band. "The idea for the band was a result of just trying to do justice to the recordings live. One thing sort of leads to another and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of 18 people on stage," Lovett says, laughing.
While his music has gone in different directions, Lovett has had a remarkably consistent career. His most recent album, 2007's It's Not Big, It's Large, peaked at No. 2 on the country charts, his highest showing to date, while his next release will be his 13th under the Universal Music umbrella. "I've been lucky in the course of my career that the record company and my management, they've kind of supported whatever I've wanted to do creatively," says Lovett.
Lovett adds that the slow building arc of his career has actually been a benefit. "My commercial success has always been under the radar," he says. "In a lot of ways not having huge success enables you to have some flexibility and freedom in doing what you want."
For Lovett that creativity has extended to a sideline as a screen actor; he was a favorite of the late director Robert Altman, appearing in several of his films. Most recently he shot "The Open Road" in Memphis. The film -- directed by Michael Meredith and set for release later this summer -- stars Jeff Bridges, Mary Steenburgen and Justin Timberlake. "I had one scene in The Peabody hotel with Justin Timberlake, which was fun," Lovett says. "I have to say, acting has never been close to being a real job for me. It's been really creatively rewarding and fun to learn about how that world works. But I don't consider myself an 'actor' by any stretch."
It's songwriting that remains Lovett's true calling. But even after a lifetime of putting words to music, the process remains as elusive as ever.
"Making up songs is never easy. And it's not difficult in a way where it's something I feel obligated to do, it's something I really enjoy," he says. "To come up with a song you feel is good enough to play live or record, it always feels like achievement to me."
The balance of 2009 will find Lovett particularly busy. Following his summer tour he'll head back on the road for a series of two-man shows with Hiatt. Then, after the release of his new album in the fall, he'll mount another full band tour. Lovett emphasizes that he doesn't take any part of his career for granted.
"I don't think you ever really feel the security of a business like this," he says. "The thing that drives me and has driven me always, is to try and do things that I enjoy. To be able to play music with the folks that I enjoy spending time with as people as well as musicians. And to have people show up to watch you do it? That's a pretty cool thing."
An Evening with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison Ave. General admission seating is $61.50. Tickets are available at the box office, online at minglewoodhall.com or by phone at 1-866-609-1744.