By Scott Schinder
Beloved Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen continues to make music that’s both deeply personal and effortlessly accessible, combining honky-tonk tradition and timelessly vivid storytelling. On the Houston-born, Bandera-based singer-songwriter’s latest longplayer, Gravitational Forces, new Keen compositions such as “Hello New Orleans,” “Wild Wind” and “Not A Drop of Rain” portray a vivid rogue’s gallery of restless dreamers, reckless vagabonds, feckless honky-tonk women and in the case of the album’s title track, extraterrestrials, with the artist’s evocative lyrics abetted by his reliably catchy melodies and aching vocal drawl.
The 11-song album also features a bracing new version of Keen’s early signature number “The Road Goes On Forever,” along with poignant readings of tunes by outlaw role models Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”), Townes Van Zandt (“Snowin’ on Raton”) and Terry Allen (“High Plains Jamboree”). And the anthemic opening track “My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame” is rapidly emerging as a definitive Keen statement, despite the fact that he didn’t write it.
Robert Earl Keen Jr. began singing and writing in earnest while working on his English degree at Texas A&M, where he and pal Lyle Lovett would often sit on Keen’s front porch on Sunday mornings and serenade those attending services at the church across the street. He subsequently established himself on the Austin scene, and saw his songs recorded by the likes of Lovett, Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith and Kelly Willis.
Keen launched his own recording career with an acclaimed series of albums for the esteemed indie folk/bluegrass label Sugar Hill, including No Kinda Dancer (1984), The Live Album (1988), West Textures (1989), A Bigger Piece of Sky (1993) and Gringo Honeymoon (1994), the latter including the wry left-field hit “Merry Christmas from the Family.” A second concert set, 1996’s No. 2 Live Dinner, ended his run with Sugar Hill, and he moved up to Arista’s newly-formed (and now-defunct) Arista Austin imprint, for a pair of acclaimed albums, Picnic and Walking Distance. The seamlessly organic-sounding Gravitational Forces, featuring Keen’s longstanding road band and produced by former Lucinda Williams cohort Gurf Morlix, marks the artist’s first for Mercury Nashville head Luke Lewis’ new alt-country-oriented Lost Highway label.
Keen’s sensitive, nuanced songwriting — along with his constant touring—has won him a large, devoted and very boisterous following that includes first daughters and noted party animals Barbara and Jenna Bush, who each have named Keen as her favorite musician, and whose dad recently declared himself a Keen admirer. Barbara recently made headlines when she and a group of friends were spotted heckling Keen and band at a recent show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Meanwhile, Keen’s avid fanbase continues to support the Texas Uprising, an annual four-day music extravaganza held in Dallas and Houston, which in the summer of 2001 expanded to include festivals in several West Coast cities. We caught up with the hardworking tunesmith at his manager’s office, in a rare respite between road trips.
You began recording Gravitational Forces while you were between record deals.
I just figured I was gonna have to have a record by the end of whatever deal I was gonna make, whether it be with a major label or an independent or if I was just gonna put it out on my own. So I just went ahead and started, not with anything much in mind, except to make a record that worked. I think I started out thinking that I was gonna try to make a country record, so all I can say is that this is about as country as it’s ever gonna get for me.
We would go out on the road for a week or two, then we would go in and track songs, then come back two weeks later and overdub some songs, and then track some more. We started recording on Sept. 14 and mastered on the 8th of March, which is the longest I’ve ever taken to make a record. With Walking Distance, I wrote all the songs in 12 days and made the record in a month. West Textures in 1989 I recorded in two days and mixed in two days. So this record was a lot more relaxed. Along the way, I dumped four or five songs I’d written and decided not to put them on the record.
Can you hear the recording approach in the sound of the album? The performances have a pretty loose, spontaneous feel.
Oh yeah, it’s very much a band record. It’s basically my live band and I. Gurf Morlix, the producer, played some guitar, and the only other musicians were Ian McLagan, who played the B3 organ, and Cody Braun from Reckless Kelly played some harmonica on “Wild Wind.” We just kept tracking until we got a really good track, and then we built from there. I just don’t have that much patience for staying in the studio for days on end. And I think that when music’s over-processed, it gets away from the point, which is the groove and the words.
Picnic was a heavily processed, layered record; it was an attempt to make something competitive-sounding. The guy that I worked with, John Keane, was very meticulous, and I just about completely went out of my mind. Toward the end of recording Picnic, my mouth broke out into this outcropping of sores. My tongue was swollen, I couldn’t eat for three days, and I couldn’t talk, let alone sing. Finally it got so painful that I went to the hospital, and they said, “We don’t really know what this is. Are you under some kind of stress?” I was obviously subconsciously sabotaging myself, because it was at the point when I was supposed to do the final vocals for these songs, and we had to shut down for a while. Of course, what John Keane did was use the time to put more guitar tracks on everything. Everything was a fight on that record. I was happy with the songs, but I wasn’t happy with the way they came out. I wasn’t happy with the whole situation, as far as being away from home and record-company guys showing up at the studio. Some people really liked that record, and some people really hated it. I got some new fans out of it, but I had to apologize to a lot of people, because they really hated that big fat processed sound. The songs are there, but the whole production didn’t fall together right. It’s stiff and it’s cold, and it just doesn’t sound like me.
After your experience with Arista, did you have trepidations about signing with another major label?
I went with Lost Highway because I like Luke Lewis, who runs the label, who also runs Mercury Nashville and now is gonna run MCA. He said, “I don’t want anything to do with the creative control of your records, I just want to sell them.” And I said, “That’s good enough for me.” Do I have trepidations about major labels? Of course. It’s not a perfect system at all. But Luke set up this label to put out records by people he likes. He sold 30 million Shania Twain records, and he used that clout to start a label for music that he thought should be heard.
But I’m still not navigating the major-label waters real well. I just don’t really know how the system works, and I’ve kind of accidentally stepped on some toes. But everybody seems happy, and we’ll sell a bunch of records and I’ll get to keep touring. I was going to make another record for Arista, right before it closed, and then my mother died so I decided to put it on hold. Had I not done that, I’d either have a record go straight into the trash or it’d be in the can and it would never come out.
I’d imagine that it must be a relief to end up on a seemingly artist-friendly label like Lost Highway, considering how conservative and restrictive the mainstream music industry has grown in the past few years.
Yeah, thank God. I always think that there must be some kind of physical law where the tighter you squeeze something, the more it squirts out through your fingers. I think that if the record companies keep squeezing things to make them perfect, then there’s gonna be some great imperfect stuff that comes out of that. The same way with radio: if radio becomes totally homogenous, then somebody’s gonna go out and do something totally different. There’s gonna be some kind of natural balance. But the fact is, right now we’re in some kind of a slump, as far as a lot of really great stuff going on.
You’ve commented elsewhere that, by your standards, the songs on Gravitational Forces are a relatively straight bunch, in that there isn’t too much twisted stuff going on in the lyrics and not too many people get killed or maimed. Was that a conscious thing, or a reflection of where your head was at when you wrote these songs, or just a coincidence?
It wasn’t coincidence. I purposely didn’t litter the landscape with bodies and didn’t go for a lot of the tasteless little inside jokes that I often like to play around with. In some ways I was trying to make a country record and trying to be more simple, so I left a lot of that stuff out. Writing-wise, I was just trying to be as direct as possible. The songs that I ended up leaving out weren’t so direct; some of them were a little tasteless. I’m really happy with the record, and I’m happy that I won’t have to apologize to some guy who’s driving his family around in their mini-van, and all of a sudden some song comes on and mom starts screaming and the kids start asking “What does that mean, daddy?”
But I can’t help but write that kind of stuff, because I like it and because it’s fun. I want to be able to write any kind of things I want to write about. I guess if I have any kind of purpose on Earth, it’s to not always be writing love songs all the time. If you were to land here from Pluto and you turned on country radio, you’d think that human beings were just in love about 98 per cent of the time.
The cover tunes on Gravitational Forces are all interesting choices. What inspired you to record those particular songs?
I just felt like doing them. It all had to do with the fact that we were just in the studio doing songs, and then at the end I took the 11 best and left the rest out. I was just going for the ones that sounded the best. During the time we were working on the album, I would come into the studio with two songs that I’d written, and we’d jack around with them and try to shape them up and make them work. Then we’d have a few more hours to kill, so I’d say “Why don’t we do ‘I Still Miss Someone’? Does anybody know all the words?” When we started working on it, Gurf was going, “You’re playing that song too fast, it’s a really sad song,” and I said, “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that it has to go really slow.”
You’ve also re-recorded “The Road Goes on Forever,” which has been a pretty important song for you. Was that a big personal thing for you?
That was because the other versions were the one I did on West Textures, which was recorded really quickly, and the live version on No. 2 Live Dinner. I’d never really done a thought-out electric version, so I kind of went, “Let’s see what I can get out of this.”
Your career, particularly the touring part, has developed into something of a grass-roots cottage industry that seems immune to music-industry trends. Were you aware of that audience while it was developing?
I just wanted to play. When I started trying to play on a regular basis, I was in Austin and I would just go to any place where I knew other singer-songwriters played. Then I decided that wasn’t enough, so I started going to bars and clubs and restaurants and asking people if I could play there, and I’d offer to play for nothing or put the tip jar out. It’s never really been any different from that. It’s always been the same game plan, working our way up from playing little, terrible clubs to doing bigger places.
It’s ironic that your sensitive, thoughtful songs have won you this boisterous party crowd. How would you account for that?
You got me. I’m certainly glad they do show up, but I can’t really tell you why they do. Early on, I used to think that I was this dysfunctional hero, particularly for college students. I think for awhile they thought it was cool that I’d be standing up there singing about what a screw-up I am, but I’m up there being a celebrity. But these days I just don’t really know. That’s why I try not to think about what I’m putting on my records, because if I played to that audience I think I’d wear out, because I don’t like to just play all the yee-haw songs.
Is it tricky to put together a live set that balances what you want to play and what the rowdier element of your audience wants to hear?
It is tricky. I change it every night, and sometimes I miss. I try real hard to play to what I think this audience is gonna enjoy, and that’s also gonna please me and the band at the same time. Which is a difficult thing to do. I’m basically just trying to give people their money’s worth. However, there are those nights where I don’t give a shit what they want to hear, when it’s “I want to play this and I want to play it this way,” because sometimes you just have to play for yourself. Because if you’re not getting anything from it, you can’t give them anything.
Since you’ve found yourself in the position of having a large and devoted audience that’s already receptive to what you do, I’d imagine that that absolves you, to some degree, of second-guessing what’s commercially acceptable.
I guess it does. It’s gotten to where people leave me alone, pretty much. I’m not very good at the second-guessing thing. Sometimes I kind of curse myself for it, because I know people that are masters at it and they’re always one step ahead. I can only go with what I like myself. If I write a song and I don’t like it, I don’t put it on there. If I write a line and I don’t like it, then I change it. I didn’t get a career because I chased somebody else’s career, I got a career because I wrote these songs that I liked, I went out and played them, and other people liked them. It worked, so I just kept going with that.
Is the president really a fan of yours, or did somebody just tell him to say that?
His daughters really are fans, and they’d been to, like, 20 shows apiece, from long before anyone said anything about them being the governor’s daughters. And I think he just became a fan like a lot of fathers become fans of their kids’ music. I’m not sure he sits around the Oval Office and listens to my records, and I’m not sure he even has one, but I know that he’s aware of it.
What are your plans for the future, other than touring behind your new album?
I haven’t thought about it much, but I’d like to take a little bit of time off to kind of take a step back and see what I’m missing in my writing. I’m still not sure I’ve written what I would consider my definitive song. So I want to get back to where I’ve got a little bit of time to do that. Otherwise you can get in this non-stop cycle of playing and playing and playing and playing, and everybody wants you to keep playing because you’re supporting all these people, and nobody ever says “Let’s stop for a minute and see what we’re doing.” I’d like to work through the end of the year, and then I’d like to step back and see what the heck’s going on. I feel like there’s something that I’m meant to write, and I don’t think I’ve written it yet. And I don’t think I’m going to figure it out unless I stop and step back and look at what I’ve written. Like, when I’m making a record, I listen to it a whole lot and try and see what’s good and what’s bad and where I ought to change things, and then I never listen to it again. I think I would like to sit down in my little room and listen to all of my records and see what’s goin’ on.
Sometimes you have these revelations when you get a chance to step back. It’s like when somebody gets put in prison and he writes his greatest work or becomes a Muslim, or somebody has a heart attack and turns their life around. I don’t want some great catastrophe to have to happen to me. I just want to be able to stop for a second and look at my stuff and see what I can do to make it feel whole to me. I want to be able to say I had the balls to make this my own choice, rather than have to wait for that heart attack. I’m not talking about taking some two-year sabbatical. I’d just like to take off a couple of months, and maybe do a couple of solo shows, which I don’t do anymore, and just get back in touch with it all.