Throw a compliment at Lyle Lovett and watch him squirm.

The four-time Grammy winner, it seems, has spent much of his career searching for a sufficiently hefty bushel under which to bury his light. “I’m still trying to figure out how to write a song,” is just one of the Texan’s more improbable claims. “I’m less of a craftsman, in my opinion, and more someone who just stumbles across words and a melody now and then.”

The perfect personification of the long, cool, gentleman cowboy, everything Lovett does is by nature understated, but no amount of charming self-effacement can obscure the fact that for 25 years he has been a master of American roots music. He is also tougher, and probably braver, than his erudite and unfailingly polite demeanour might suggest.

Outside of music, Lovett has thrown himself into two famously bruising arenas – Hollywood and the ranch – and has the scars to prove it. An enthusiastic breeder of horses and livestock, when he was gored by a bull in 2002 he dusted himself down with an admirable lack of fuss and was back on the road within months. When he married Julia Roberts in 1993, following a whirlwind three-week courtship, he jumped head first into the Beverly Hills bear pit. They said it wouldn’t last. It didn’t. The couple divorced, amicably, in 1995, and Lovett has been with his partner April Kimble for more than a decade.

Marriage to Roberts placed him under a spotlight which wasn’t always terribly forgiving, and yet there is no trace of bitterness. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Life is all about engaging in relationships with people you meet along the way,” he says. “The opportunities that present themselves always amaze me. I really enjoy getting to be with smart people who are interested in what they’re doing. That’s really what I take away from all of it.”

Born in Houston in 1957, Lovett began performing in the mid-1970s while studying journalism at Texas A&M University. Equally at home on his uncle’s farm or in the library, his music was similarly pluralistic, combining the hard edge of Texas’s notorious honky-tonks and the more reflective nature of its cafes and coffee houses. At heart Lovett still defines himself as an acoustic singer-songwriter, but since releasing his self-titled debut album in 1986 he has woven into his music elements of blues, jazz, gospel, Texas swing and, above all, country.

The result has made for a richly unclassifiable career. Despite selling more than four million records, Lovett has (his liaison with Roberts aside) never had to negotiate serious stardom or transient notions of cool. Instead, he has settled for the pursuit of sustained excellence via a variety of musical platforms. We speak as he is touring the US with John Hiatt, performing their well-oiled duo show. Next weekend at Southern Fried, Perth’s annual festival of Americana music, he’ll be appearing with his endlessly inventive five-piece Acoustic Group. When schedules and budget align he unleashes his extraordinary Large Band, a 16-piece musical beast last heard on his 2007 album, It’s Not Big, It’s Large.You might imagine that this is a man who carefully plots each varied aspect of his career, but you’d be wrong. “Nothing I do starts out being some kind of preconceived artistic expression that I want to engage in,” says Lovett. “It’s less conceptual than that. At the centre of it all is the song. I get very excited about writing new songs and then hearing what it turns into as it evolves. I really do enjoy being able to present the song in different forms. All the other stylistic aspects are qualities that get applied with hindsight, and often through other people’s perceptions. To me it’s very real, rather than sitting back and thinking, ‘Well, I’m a certain kind of artist’.”

It’s been two years since Lovett’s last album, Natural Forces, and the follow up is well on the way to completion. He plans to finish recording in September, aiming for a release in late 2011 or early 2012. It may well be the last record he releases under the conventional route of engaging with a traditional record label.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to call the record company and actually talk to the people who are running it,” he says. “I had that early on in my career, but the record industry has changed so much, I’m not able to have those kinds of personal relationships any more with people at my label. I’m at the end of my recording contract, I have one more record to give them before my deal is over, and I don’t know if there’s the same incentive on their part, or mine, to engage. Playing live is the main way I make a living and where I feel most connected to what I’m doing. You kind of have to go where the love is!”

As well as tending to his day job, for two decades Lovett has enjoyed a creatively rewarding sideline in acting. With his long, angular features and shock of curly hair, he possesses a hard-wired sense of strangeness which he has deployed on stage and screen to fine effect, popping up in a number of popular TV programmes, such as Dharma And Greg and Brothers And Sisters. He recently spent two weeks playing Balthasar alongside Helen Hunt in the Shakespeare Centre of Los Angeles’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. “Their emphasis is to try to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone,” he says, playing down his own contribution with characteristic drollness.

His most notable appearances have been in the movies of his mentor, the late Robert Altman. It was on the set of Altman’s The Player that Lovett first met Julia Roberts. Typically, he credits only good luck and good timing. “The film opportunities that I’ve enjoyed came out of the blue, and began with Robert Altman calling me up one day,” he says. “I certainly don’t have a film career and I don’t pursue acting the way actors pursue acting, but I always enjoy it.”

Lovett holds fast to his Texas roots and to a set of enduring, perhaps rather old-fashioned values. He talks about the importance of “feeling productive. There’s something about having a job and being able to make a living that makes you feel like a complete person in the world.” At the centre of his work and life lies a powerful need to belong. He lives in Klein, the small Texas town where he was raised, in the house his grandfather built in 1911. His mother and uncle live just across the field. Spanning the length of his career, songs such as Cowboy Man and South Texas Girl make explicit the extent to which home feeds his music, and yet the life of a working musician is by nature an itinerant one. As he gets older, does he find it more difficult to uproot himself to go on tour?

“I do have a very strong rooted feeling about where I’m from, but I think that actually gives me the strength to be able to be gone,” he says. “In anyone’s life, you accept what comes with the choices you make. My parents both commuted into downtown Houston every day, and it could take up to an hour and a half. I spend as much time at home, in total, as they were able to, even though it’s a very different place from where I grew up. It’s become much more suburbanised, but that doesn’t diminish its value for me. I don’t look around and think, ‘I gotta get out of here’. It’s home and it will continue to be home.”

We should be thankful he leaves as often as he does. On his last visit to Scotland, in 2008, Lovett and his Acoustic Group were spell-binding. His appearance at Southern Fried promises to be equally enthralling. He will, at the very least, be happy to be here. “Truly, I’m just so thrilled to be able to do this,” he says. “The variety of a music career, from writing, to recording, to putting the record together with the artwork and production, to going out and playing, is so much fun for me. I feel very, very fortunate that I get to live my life doing things I love doing.”

Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group play Southern Fried, Perth Concert Hall, on Saturday,