Since emerging on the scene in the mid-'80s, Lyle Lovett has never been shy about his quirky sense of humor.

The Texas troubadour has written songs about penguins, skinny legs and penned the lyrics "fat babies have no pride."

But one of his cleverest insights arrived last year, not in a song but an album cover: the stark image of him standing in a desert, tied up with a rope, looking forlorn beneath the title "Release Me."

It was the last album in his contract with label Curb/Lost Highway. After nearly three decades, he wanted out.

"The marketing guys from Lost Highway called up laughing when they saw the cover," Lovett said.

The album was filled with mostly cover songs, tributes to fellow Texans Townes Van Zandt and Eric Taylor.

"The only song I learned for the record was 'Release Me.' I'd always loved that song, but I did it really as a joke to be able to name the album that," he said. "But I was really proud of the way the track came out and to get to do it with k.d. (lang)."

It fit perfectly and made the album work as a whole, something he has always strived for, even in an age of 99-cent singles.

Over the years, swinging between blues, country, gospel and jazz, Lovett has played more than a dozen shows in Sonoma County, whether doing spare acoustic shows with Guy Clark and John Hiatt or taking over every inch of the stage with his 14-piece Large Band.

Before Lovett plays his first show at the Green Music Center on Monday, once again sharing a stage with John Hiatt, he took a tour break to chat about songwriting, the muse and liberation:

Q: How would you describe your shows with Hiatt?

A: They're such a nice of change of pace for me. The audiences seem to tolerate our talking. Just getting to talk to him and poke him a little bit and ask him questions about his songs and his process, that's the fun part of it for me.

Q: What's that relationship like?

A: I've known John since the mid-'80s. The first time I saw him onstage was the 31st of January, 1981, when he and his band were hired by Ry Cooder for the "Borderline" album tour. On tour, the only time we see each other is onstage. So it's our only chance to visit. What we talk about onstage is very genuine conversation and not a script.

Q: Several years ago you told Elvis Costello something to the effect of, "Songs that sneak up on you and tap you on the shoulder and demand that you finish them are really the ones I end up liking the most." Is that something you make sure you don't ever take for granted?

A: You can't ever take writing a song for granted. Having a song that you think is good enough to present to people is still somewhat of a miraculous and mysterious thing. Nothing thrills me more than a new song.

Q: I often have this feeling when I'm listening to your songs that I'm being pulled into them, like being pulled into a room, or a moving car or a movie. How important is a sense of place and narrative to what you do?

A:I think the thing that makes any song compelling is an underlying narrative that ultimately the listener sees in himself. That's what makes any work compelling. A sense of place is a device that paints that picture they can hold on to.

Q: I like that idea of each listener taking away something different.

A: That's really what you hope for. You want the listener to feel something. I'm not trying to get the listener to learn something about me. I want the listener to feel something for themselves.

Q: Was it liberating to leave Lost Highway?

A: Yes. I haven't really done anything in my liberation yet. I haven't decided what I'm going to do for my next record. I've been making up songs and trying to figure out how I'll do my next record.

The record business has changed so much. Having a record deal these days isn't the same as having a record deal when my first record came out. There are a lot more possibilities in this day in time, especially if you're preaching to the choir, especially if you have people who are going to look for your next record.

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@beckmediaproductions.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.