Lyle Lovett doesn?t just remember the first time he saw John Hiatt play, he recalls the exact date. Jan. 31, 1981.

The concert was at Austin?s Paramount Theater. Hiatt and his band were supporting Ry Cooder on his ?Borderline? tour. At the time, in between bachelor degrees at the University of Texas in Austin, Lovett was ?totally unfamiliar with John Hiatt.?

?I thought he was a great guitar player,? he remembers. ?He had tremendous energy.?

The two would meet a few years later in Nashville when Lovett was shopping his demo and Hiatt was holding down a weekly Music Row showcase gig. Their first time on stage together ? ?in October of 1989? ? they swapped songs with Texas singer-songwriters Guy Clark and Joe Ely.

Now, nearly three decades later, they occasionally strike out on the road together ? two veterans, two guitars and two equally odd sensibilities ? for a short-lived acoustic spree. It might have something to do with a shared manager; more likely it?s a shared love of lyrics that double as poetry ? even as Hiatt stretches to rhyme ?amoeba? and Lovett pines for a boat.

When they unplug and settle in for an old-fashioned, backporch ?guitar pull? at the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 14, Lovett promises to sprinkle in a few songs off his upcoming album ?Natural Forces,? due out Oct. 20. Along with classics such as ?Thing Called Love? and ?Riding with the King,? Hiatt will likely toss in a few new gems from ?Same Old Man,? released last year to mostly rave reviews.

?I just like John and I like hanging out with him,? Lovett says in a phone interview. ?I?m always interested in what he?s speaking about and what might be on his mind and what his process might be.?

That curiosity often crops up on stage as Lovett takes on the role of reporter (dusting off his chops as a journalism major at UT), leaning over his guitar and nudging the more reticent Hiatt with questions all night long.

?We don?t really work up stuff. I try not to ask John the same thing from night to night to night. I want John to always wonder what?s coming. I just try to ask him something that will be interesting for him to answer, really. The whole time we?re together on tour, I?ll be thinking ? what can I ask him tonight that will be different than last night?

?He?s always willing to play along. That?s the thing I really appreciate about John ? he wants it to be a show as much as I want it to be a show. I trust that he?s not going to look at me and say, ?Why don?t you just mind your own business and play a song??<TH>?

Somehow, despite all the material the Texas native could choose from, it never happens. Twenty-three years after his eponymous debut recording peaked at #14 on the country charts, Lovett?s new album features a handful of songs by some of his favorite Texas singer-songwriters: Townes Van Zandt, Eric Taylor, David Ball and Vince Bell. They?re all ?songs that were a part of my musical life from the beginning,? he says. That means he didn?t have to learn any of them and they easily could have appeared on his 1998 Texas songwriters homage ?Step Inside This House.?

But the most highly anticipated arrival is a quartet of original new songs that remind once again of the random incidents that conspire ? amid all the whimsy of daily ephemera, TV commercials and grocery lists ? for a typical Lovett song.

After road-testing ?Pantry? for the past two years, Lovett finally recorded the culinary country number he co-wrote with his longtime girlfriend, April Kimble. (If you saw him last year in Santa Rosa, you may remember it got the most laughs that night).

Teasing the palate with talk of biscuits, bacon and collard greens, it?s a love song about spontaneity ? whenever and wherever it may strike. Or as Lovett describes it: ?I was looking through the groceries, you know, very excited to see what she?d brought us home, but instead of doing my job and carrying the groceries into the house, I got distracted. And she said that to me (?Keep it in your pantry!?) and I laughed and said, that?s a song, we gotta make that happen.?

The title song, ?Natural Forces,? came to him while he was watching an NFL game at the end of last season. ?It was a beer commercial that inspired the whole thing.?

There he was watching a sport that no other country in the world plays ? ?this exuberant celebration of being American.? Then came ?the climax of the beer commercial, which is the epitome of American exuberance .<TH>.<TH>. and then it went to a promo of the evening news which featured a Middle Eastern update. In the context of all that, I just thought there had to be a song there.?

Powered by steel guitarist Paul Franklin, who?s been working with Lovett as far back as the ?Pontiac? album, the result is an epic tale that sprawls through history from the Seminole and Creek Indians, across the plains on 18-wheelers and up to the latest American war. Arriving again and again at the line ?home is where my horse is,? the underlying sentiment weaves and winds across dusty territory, eventually leaving it up to the listener as Lovett sings, ?I pray that I?m worth fighting for.?

At this point in his career, before Lovett turns 52 in November and more than 15 years after his life ballooned into tabloid fodder during a brief marriage to actress Julia Roberts, he describes himself as ?in that netherland? somewhere between totally independent artists and the four-decade, major-label stalwarts.

?Illegal downloading probably helps a guy like me,? he says, later adding, ?I obviously make money for the label. They don?t just keep you around for this long for nothing. They?re just not that sweet. They don?t keep you around unless you?re pulling your own weight.?

Bay Area freelance writer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. He can be reached at 280-8014 or jtbiii@yahoo.com.