This Texan appreciates the past while plotting the future
I loved Robert Earl Keen’s “Picnic” and “Walking Distance” albums of 1997 and 1998, and urged John Madden to bring him to town. The Texas singer-songwriter was on the verge of connecting with a new audience and soon outgrew the Southgate House. By the time I first talked to him in 2011, he had to put up with frat boys screaming “The Party Never Ends” from the moment he took the stage, but he handled it with good humor and appreciated the fact that tune and “Merry Christmas From the Family” gave him the luxury of writing tunes that were a little closer to his heart.
2017 - Interview
Robert Earl Keen has built a solid reputation with his literate brand of Texas-influenced amalgam of folk, country and rock.
He writes songs about characters – flawed, striving to overcome those flaws or doomed because of them – that strike a chord with listeners. In a career that started more than 30 years ago, however, the songwriter hasn’t written a tune about a local man who piqued his curiosity.
Keen began a recent conversation with this question: “What do you know about William Howard Taft?”
Stunned voice on the Ohio end of the phone: “Uh, he’s from Cincinnati. Are you a fan?”
“Yeah, I think so. He’s interesting. He’s the only person ever to be president (1909-13) and a Supreme Court justice (chief justice from 1921-30),” he says. “I just find that fascinating.”
That observation sets a pretty high bar for fascinating and accomplishments, but Keen is no slouch in his field. The Houston native reunited with Lyle Lovett, his fellow Texas A&M Aggie, on a two-guys-with-guitars tour last year. In 2015, he recorded “Happy Prisoner,” an album of bluegrass classics that included tunes written by Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley and Peter Rowan with performances by Rowan, Lovett, Natalie Maines and Sara Watkins among others.
This is not a man who is afraid to try something different, although the roots of both of those projects are in 1970s’ College Station.
“(Lyle) is one of the only people who is busier than I am,” Keen says. “My father-in-law says he ‘eats work like Post Toasties.’ I always told him whenever he wanted to do this I’m ready, and it just ended up on our schedules.
“As for bluegrass, when I was in college, that really what we used to play, kind of jammed on all the time, that and country music. I believe it was the simplicity, it just always makes you feel good, and I really love the banjo and fiddle.”
Those instruments are no strangers to Keen’s other records, but part of a sonic palette that appeals to fans of different genres. In addition to an outstanding core band that has played with him for years, album credits are strewn with name brands that include Lloyd Maines (pedal steel), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Tim O’Brien (mandolin) and the late Ian McLagan (keyboards).
Talent and collaboration make a formidable combination, whether in music or life itself. Keen hasn’t released an album of original songs since “Ready for Confetti” in 2011, but his process has changed, mainly because of other obligations.
“I’ve been writing songs, but I haven’t been able to quite absorb them because life kind of gets in the way,” he says. “I have a daughter graduating from TCU … I have another one in high school. I don’t want to sound like somebody really gushing, but having kids is the greatest and most wonderful surprise I’ve had in my life.”
Keen will more time to absorb those new songs when the youngest leaves the house. And there’s no reason to think they won’t become set list staples like “Shades of Grey,” “Corpus Christi Bay” and “I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight.”
Fascinating people can make a mark in more than one job.
2011 - Album Release Interview
Robert Earl Keen’s stock in trade is spinning a tale. His best ones might be actual or embellished or imagined.
But when the Texas singer-songwriter talks about music and life, he speaks the truth, no matter who might be offended.
Take the target of “The Road Goes On and On” from his new “Ready for Confetti” album.
“That a real pointed little piece to a person – I know it’s kind of selfish – but I wanted somebody to hear that because they’ve been picking on me for years and I was tired of it,” Keen said. “So I wanted to tell them that real cowboys know this particular song (his classic ‘Road Goes on Forever’) as opposed to fake cowboys.”
The songs from “Confetti” are instantly recognizable as REK tunes, especially “Paint the Town Beige,” which originally appeared on 1993’s “A Bigger Piece of Sky.”
The inclusion of an almost 20-year-old song that refers to finding peace of mind with a fishing pole on a disc of new material might (or might not) have something to do a revelation Keen recounts in the liner notes on “Confetti.”
Seems he was sitting by the fishing hole in the midday sun when he nodded off while counting blessings that include a loving family, a world-class band and an enthusiastic cadre of fans. When he awoke, the sun was setting, the crickets were chirping and the day had turned cool. He had done nothing except maybe snore a little, and the world had changed.
A simple story, but one relevant to one artist on one particular day.
“I’m not afraid of exploring new territory as far as subject matter for songs, however the things that I’ve been writing lately all seems to be spot on with what’s going on around me and what’s happening to me personally,” Keen said.
Whether grist for his tunes come from fishing holes, street people, life on the run or maybe someday, one of daughter Clara’s current boyfriends (“My God, his name is ‘Herdlick,’ because he doesn’t have just one cowlick, he has them from the whole herd”), Keen will devote his energy to writing the best songs he can, then play them for his fans with his band that is “as good as anybody in the world.”
But he knows it’s unlikely that the road will go on forever. He has seen people who should have parked long ago.
“I don’t need to be in the spotlight all the time,” he said. “What I like about performing, and I like a compliment as well as anybody, but what I like about performing is I like to be on stage, I like to be with the guys and I like to see people happy.
“But what I don’t care about is seeing my picture everywhere or hear people telling me over and over how great I am. The reason I’m going off on this is I’ve thought about this a lot. As long as you’re relevant as an artist, be it a novelist, a sculptor, a songwriter, a performer of any kind, as long as you’re relevant, you’re OK to do what you want to do.”
Just don’t try to stretch the truth.