By Rob Patterson
For the last decade plus, if one were to say “Lone Star music,” the name that frequently would come to mind is Robert Earl Keen. During the 1990s, the Houston native who now makes his home in Bandera became a Texas favorite if not icon, thanks to songs that run from sharp humor to vivid stories to poignant emotional ruminations.
Keen started playing music at Texas A&M University, hanging out on the porch at the off-campus rental house where he lived with his longtime buddy, fiddler Bryan Duckworth. Fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett would often drop by and play with them, as immortalized in the song Keen and Lovett co-wrote — called “The Porch Song” in Keen’s zippy version of it and “This Old Porch” in Lovett’s more ruminative take. He landed in Austin after college and began working his way up through the clubs, releasing his first album, No Kinda Dancer, in 1984.
On the advice of Steve Earle — who warned Keen that in Austin the women are too pretty and the pot too cheap — Keen moved to Nashville, but unlike such peers as Earle, Lovett and Nanci Griffith, he didn’t win a record deal while there. So by the end of the decade, Keen was back in Texas playing the clubs again.
Albums like No Kinda Dancer, West Textures and a live record he made at Dallas’s Sons of Hermann Hall marked a rising new songwriter on the Texas scene. And steady roadwork across the state gathered fans who identified with his very Texan tales. By the time of A Bigger Piece of Sky in 1993 and Gringo Honeymoon the next year, Keen moved from a more folk-oriented approach to a country-rocking band sound, as captured next on No. 2 Live Dinner. Meanwhile he was becoming one of the most popular live attractions in the state, eventually holding his own festival, the Texas Uprising, which will this year be held in Corpus Christi and Fort Worth over Memorial Day Weekend.
On May 10, he will release What I Really Mean, and the date has been declared Robert Earl Keen Day across the state. But of course, for many Texas music fans, it’s always Robert Earl Keen Day, thanks to the way he has all but defined the Texas singer-songwriter ethos for the new century.
You followed Farm Fresh Onions pretty quickly with What I Really Mean. Are you on a prolific streak right now?
I feel great about the music and the band. That’s why we just went right in after Farm Fresh Onions and did another one. I finally feel like, as far as a music guy, I’ve got what I want to work with. I’m not running out there trying to figure out stuff musically. At this point, it just gives me more time to think about how the songs should go, as far as lyrically, story-wise, color. Because I love playing with this band, and because Rich [Brotherton, lead guitar and producer of his two most recent albums] does a really great job with what he’s doing and I feel comfortable with it, a lot of the stress is off about “what am I going to do?” The reason for a while there where I wasn’t doing records very often was because I would always go, I hate this process — trying to figure out a producer, and go through who will play on this song and won’t play on that song. I was under the thumb of doing that record company dance, and I don’t have to do that anymore.
So your label, Koch Nashville, gives you the freedom to do what you want?
That’s pretty much it. They want a record that they like, and they seem to like this one, and that’s a real plus. At the same time, nobody at the label calls me about what the record should be, nobody shows up at the studio. We just do what we do.
I guess after having done this for so long they trust you?
I hope so. And I should. And it’s a relief.
It’s very important for you that your band plays on the record, isn’t it?
I don’t like to blow my horn that much, but you’ll hear all this stuff about people standing up for their bands, and they never stand up for their bands. Nobody does what I’m doing — other than bands that are bands — but the good part of it is that we go onstage and we know how to play the songs.
Is there any kind of overriding or even implicit theme to this album?
Purple. Purple is pretty much the overriding theme. I’m just telling you that that yesterday we were sitting around trying to figure out some kind of t-shirt thing. And with Farm Fresh Onions you’ve got this tangible thing. You can forever go with merchandising stuff with that title. But when you have some kind of ambiguous sentence like What I Really Mean, there’s nothing there. So I go, well, I guess what we ought to do is make sure the shirt is purple because the cover is purple. Sorry, I know that’s not the answer you want. What is the theme? I don’t know. I wrote all the songs in one month, and they came out the way they came out. And in general I think they are all pretty colorful.
So you don’t think about what an album might say as you write it or try to detect a theme as it’s being recorded?
I don’t. It’s just kind of what comes out. Then it’s a matter of, is this song any good or not? I do find in general that I try to keep everything moving: the characters moving and the bus rolling and the train rolling. I like a lot of movement. But I’ve always liked a lot of movement. I also have that “Ride” song at the very end of this album; that’s real representative of what I do. Bottom line: I’m getting out of town.
How does the writing process work for you?
I have to sit down and try to write. I don’t sit around and think about when I’m going to be inspired. Every once in a while I’ll get some idea and jot it down. But it generally all comes to me just sitting there by myself, no interruptions, no bullshit, no phones, no kids, nothing. Just sitting there and making yourself write. And I always think of this thing Terry Allen told me. I asked him, “What happens when you can’t think of shit to do?” He goes, “Sometimes you just have to wait.” I said, “What, wait until it comes?” He goes, “Oh no. You sit and you wait. “ Like you’re waiting for a bus or something. And that’s the hardest part — just sitting there. I’ll kind of strum, or I’ll pick up another guitar or pick up a mandolin and play it. But I’ve gotten to where I just sit there and I keep sitting there. Because getting up takes you away from wherever you are going in your mind. And then it’s all over with and then you have to start over. So that was like the best music advice I’ve ever gotten is that you just sit and wait. So I do. Sometimes I sit for two days. And then it kind of comes. And then it comes in floods.
How did Ray Price end up singing on the album?
Towards the end of the record there’s this thing called “A Border Tragedy,” which is this three-part thing. There’s this little banjo piece that I made up and played on the banjo. And there’s this part of it called “The Virgin of Ciudad Acuña” which is about being in this alley in Ciudad Acuña at three o’clock in the morning drinking beers and watching this girl who is really beautiful chewing on a nacho and drinking a Vampira and watching her boyfriend vomit. And that just stops with the word “vomiting,” and goes right into “The Streets of Laredo. “And we have Ray Price singing the chorus.
I tried to explain to him that it’s not going to be a song but just this thing. And right at the last minute, Ray goes, “Can I hear what we’re doing?” And he listens to it and goes, “Okay.” I was a little scared that it might bother him. But he’s really nice. I said, here’s all you need to do is the chorus of “The Streets of Laredo.” Can you do it? He said, “Son, I’ve been singing that song since you’ve been shitting yellow.”
You’ve been an inspiration if not icon for the whole Texas music movement thing. What are your thoughts on that and spawning a slew of new artists?
I think the more the merrier. I’m glad that I’ve had some effect. If I feel like there’s any job that I have, it’s to keep the bar high. I’ll definitely sit down and dissect the song with you and tell you why it works well and why it doesn’t fall down and cheat anybody on ideas. I am really strong on this writing thing. I hold the bar very high for myself and I think the other people should hold the bar as high — at least be shooting for that sort of quality in their songs. They don’t have to write this kind of song, but their songs have to make sense and have a certain degree of fulfillment and satisfaction. If I’ve done anything at all, maybe I’ve kept the bar high on that. I don’t see it all the time.
I certainly think there was a big lull in the Texas country thing that I was part of a bridge to what people now consider a movement. And my part was writing these songs and playing all the time. And all these guys saw me a bunch of times. And I will say, whether or not they want to admit it, every one of them knows all the words to “The Road Goes On Forever.”
Weren’t there some guys in Dallas who used to act out the story in that song when you played it?
That was these guys, Little John and Boone — the “Keenoids.” They would get up there and do this pantomime to the whole song, and it was so bizarre. It was otherworldly. If I ever really should have done a video, it should have been just of that. They just could have had the song playing and these two guys, because one was like six-foot-nine and the other one was like five-foot-three. And they were doing these crazy hillbilly kind of pantomime things. And in the end, when they quit, they even got the front page of the Lifestyle section of the Dallas Morning News. Everyone should be so good at PR.
You have a real appreciation for the bizarre, don’t you? Where does that come from?
It’s what makes it fun. It’s that quirky stuff you learn from your parents. My mom grew up in this little itty bitty town and had great stories about what happened there. I always told her she should write them down. There was one she used to tell about this woman who was so ditzy and so rich that lived way out in the country. She would come back to the grocery store on her once a week grocery run, and the grocery guy would open up the trunk and all the groceries were still in the trunk. I just ate that stuff up as a kid. The more bizarre, the funnier and more memorable.
The rise of all these new artists seems to have siphoned off the rabid college following you had there for a while. Has your audience changed in recent years?
The frat crowd we had graduated and the new ones went on to whomever. Now we still get that in the outlying areas; these guys are late coming to the party or whatever. It’s really turned around and now, it’s weird, we’re getting this 8 to 80 crowd, but a lot of music listeners. They’re fans of music and they know music other than just us and Jerry Jeff. So it’s a plus. Not as many insane moments of, “Listen, son. I’ll sign whatever you have in your hand. Just don’t hurt your girlfriend trying to get to me.”
You’ve described this album as a bit more country than the last one. But you obviously have your idea of what country music is and should be. How do you define it?
If I had been the president of country music since 1974, country music today would sound like this record, with maybe a few shuffles, because there’s no shuffles on this record. I’m just bringing it to what I think it should be. The country music that I loved was full of narrative and full of wink and nod sort of observations. And also really good playing and interesting musical licks, and everybody was part of the song. Instead of here’s the obligatory steel lick, here’s the obligatory rock lick in the country song, and here’s the fiddle ending, thank you very much. Some of those producers in Nashville — and I know some of those guys personally — should be somewhat ashamed. That stuff’s not even musical. We should just throw out the word “music” in country music. Have you listened to country music lately? I just don’t know what it is. Is it a talent show? Or is it all a commercial for fashion?
Is there anyone here in Texas who is up and coming that you think is good?
Who else do I like? I love Adam Carroll. His stuff is story based, and he is not afraid to take a hard left or right into unknown territory. You get the feeling that he knows all these characters, but they can definitely go off and be fun. He definitely has a sense of humor. Like that thing of his, “Racecar Joe, the guy with the cancer glow.” That killed me.
How do you work with the characters in your songs?
A lot of times I don’t dig too far into the characters because you don’t have that much time. In something like “Mariano,” that was really about a person, and I tried to follow the thought and feeling of this person, and there is definitely characterization there. But in the case of “The Great Hank” on this album, the idea was like a play, like you step in the door and there it is: this guy in drag singing these Hank Williams songs. And then he’s sitting there at the bar. To me, every bit of it rings true because I can see every picture. I’m like the director of my own little song movie.
So why did your old pal Bryan Duckworth retire from the band?
He was telling me that George Strait’s old bus driver asked, “So what happened? Did you just get tired of going on the road all the time?” He said, “No. I got tired of the music.” I love that. Hardly anybody but Duckworth would say that, but everybody knows what he means. You’re in the same band for seven years playing the same old songs, and they’re not your songs. We don’t ever get in this discussion in the band, but there’s got to be some of the songs that these guys really hate.
Okay, is there one you don’t like to play?
Yeah, I have a hard time playing “Five Pound Bass.” It was a joke that kind of got out of hand. It became a showcase for some nice acoustic playing and some cool stuff. And a lot of times it works really well with a guest, because it’s an easy chord progression to play and a good player can really play on it. If fits a bunch of things for performing. But as far as the song goes, the joke’s not funny and I feel kind of embarrassed about it.
And the converse, is there one right now that you love playing?
I never get tired of playing “Dreadful Selfish Crime.” It feels like I am telling the truth.
You’ve been able to develop a certain artistic and business autonomy in your career, especially in having your own management company overseeing things. Was there a concerted effort to do that?
No. I don’t think anybody really had enough interest in me to do really anything. And when they came to the point where they had interest, it always felt like it had to do with, well, now this guy is selling enough records for us to be interested. But by that time I was fully formed, and I could say, sorry, you don’t know how this works. It’s just rare to find anyone who even understands what’s going on, much less can understand or wants to help you for any other reasons than to just hang around or make money off of you. I’ve had this long string of screw-ups in my life about trying to work with different people and go, “sorry, this just isn’t working.”
In the end, I don’t want to be a manager or record company guy. I want to be an artist. I want to do what I can do, because I’ve always felt pretty strongly about the fact that I could write a song. Even when I couldn’t write a song for shit, I knew I could write a song. So that’s why I stuck with that.
Are there any things you feel like you’d still like to achieve in your career?
I’d like people to just look over the songs and see that they’re better than the average bear. But it’s like art, it’s a real subjective thing. I think I write a really good lyric and I must do something well, because I have all these people who like it. But it’s hard to get any attention from the industry. I don’t have any insecurity about my writing or “can I do this.” The only place I kind of freak is that I feel like there are some opportunities out there I shouldn’t have to fight so hard to get.
Here’s something that’s weird. I do write songs and I hope that people will record them. I found out recently that there are some people that are afraid to record my songs, because I do them this way, and it’s the Robert Earl Keen way. And they don’t want to screw it up or if it will really work if they do them. I’m going, no, no, no — don’t think that. Do the song. Record it. Record it all day long. Record it in Spanish if you like. I don’t care.
But in my mind, I have this idea that there’s this “industry,” like it’s Oz or something, but it’s not. And to think that all of a sudden everybody is going to come together and go, “Let’s vote on Robert Earl Keen. He’s really good.” But it’s an illusion. But I would like some attention in that realm, critical attention, I guess. And I feel like I am sort of ignored. Other than that, I’m okay. I like what I do.