Interviews

Robert Earl Keen Talks Songwriting, Storytelling and Legendary Career

Richlynn Group

There’s something inherently Texan about Robert Earl Keen‘s music. At his point, they should be handing out copies of No. 2 Live Dinner and Gringo Honeymoon at the state lines. He’s only sharpened his sharp grasp of the dialect, atmosphere, landscape and narrative over the course of his 35+ year career. There’s an acute understanding of the human condition buried deep in his songs. Vast landscapes and intense periods of time haunt his songs in a way that doesn’t just strictly resonate; it remains with you long after a song has finished.

Inherently Texan. Songs such as “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Merry Christmas From the Family,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and the ever iconic “The Road Goes On Forever” are as deeply rooted within the diverse culture of Texas as the Dallas Cowboys, the Astrodome, Blue Bell ice cream and The Alamo. Folks know these songs by heart deep in the heart of Texas.

Yet, Keen stood out and brazenly beat his chest as a “Texan songwriter.” He never mailed in “another song about Texas” or rested on achievements from the past. Much like Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and a host of others, Keen’s compositions inhabited the land but never relied on that being the full measure of the song. In short, it’s always been about the story and characters.

His cowboy tunes and border ballads have grown into mythical beings. They are brief snapshots of encounters and conflict. Often, these characters are common and everyday people–normal by most standards. But, these episodes told in song, they define them for one reason or another. Keen’s understanding of emotions and intentions are the fuel to his narratives.

There’s a straightforwardness to Keen’s writing that can make you think it’s simple and easy. It’s not. In some instances, you think it’s something you could have written yourself. And that’s the beauty of it. Keen’s writing rarely feels like writing. You’d swear he was ad-libbing his songs and stories every night. It’s only the fervent fanbase singing along to every word that reminds you he’s not.

Wide Open Country caught up with Keen earlier this week for a conversation about his illustrious career, songwriting and how time effects songs.

 

Thomas Mooney: Last week, I wrote this feature on Lyle Lovett‘s Step Inside This House since it turned 20 years old this year. He does a version of your song “Rollin’ By” on there. You’re the one true contemporary on there since everyone else was a little bit older. When did you know he was going to include it?

Robert Earl Keen: I had written that song many years before. When I wrote it, it occurred to me that it was the kind of song that Lyle liked. I called him up and said, “Hey, I wrote this song that I think you’re really going to like.” I played it for him and he learned it right then and there. He’d known the song for a number of years before he did Step Inside This House. I think it was a tribute to him and his musical tastes for me to be included in that group of people that he really grew up emulating and revering. Like you said, I am a contemporary of his. To be included, I thought that was just a great thing.

TM: Step Inside This House is so much about him looking back at those earlier years and the influences that shaped him. On Happy Prisoner, you went and made a bluegrass album. Do you see any parallels between the two albums–since it was you also going back to early influences?

REK: Yeah, you can make that comparison. He had written a lot of songs and done a lot of things under his own name and umbrella. When I was doing Happy Prisoner and when he was doing Step Inside This House, I imagine we felt very much the same way. We had proven our worth as songwriters and music makers. We wanted to pay homage to our roots and influences. His tended to be great songwriters, particularly Texas songwriters. Mine tended to be bluegrass music. I think I felt very much the same way. I thought I had done all these records of my own songs, but I wanted to do something that was close to my heart.

TM: If you go back to those early records of yours, you can certainly hear more of that bluegrass influence. Over the course of your career, you did get more electric and more of a fuller band sound. Did making Happy Prisoner in a way, reset yourself as a songwriter? Did it recharge your batteries?

REK: I felt like Happy Prisoner was a significant point in time. I really just wanted to do something that I really liked and I did it. A lot of times, you second-guess yourself with these records that you make. That one, there was no second-guessing. Did it recharge my battery? It did in the sense that I felt like I accomplished something that I always wanted to do. I no longer felt that little nagging tap on the back of your brain about needing to do this certain thing before you can move on. When people ask me if I’m going to do another bluegrass record, I usually say that I’ve done it. I don’t need to continue [laughs].

TM: Right. A Bigger Piece of Sky, that’s almost like a cowboy poetry kind of record. Were you listening to more old cowboy songs around that time? What was your mindset going into making that album?

REK: You know, I’ve done a lot of things by the seat of my pants. I’ve always been driven by the fact that I’ve had very few opportunities as far like as somebody stepping forward with a bunch of money for me to do something. When I did Bigger Piece of Sky, I had run out of record deals. The last record I had done, the budget was $7,500. I was in the midst of trying to find something that would be interesting to me more so than anyone else. I put together the money to make Bigger Piece of Sky. Those songs just really fell together in that way. I wasn’t exactly thinking about what kind of audience I was looking for. I was just thinking about what I wanted to do.

I was wanting to have a bigger sound. One of the strangest things about Bigger Piece of Sky was that I thought it was quite the departure from what I had done before–I still do. I played it for a few really trusted friends and they all said it was a country record. It’s not a country record. It’s something else. I still believe that. The true fact is that I did it with the last bunch of money I had in my pocket and put it out there the way it was. I was just fortunate some really good things happened.

My publisher, Gary Velletri, who had never produced a record ever and couldn’t play an instrument, he produced that record. He was a great idea guy. He also put together that band–Gary Tallent from Bruce Springsteen‘s band and George Marinelli from Bonnie Raitt‘s band. We had some really great players. Marty Stuart was on there. We were all under this super tight budget. It was one of those things. I’d say, of all the records I’ve made, that’s in the top three. I had really great memories. It was exciting to make it and a departure for me since we were using some new sounds. However, at the same time, I was under all that stress. I think it did pretty well. I think it put me in another group too. You know, we’re talking about ’93 so back then, people were still talking about folk music and acoustic music. I had jumped out of that spot and moved into something different.

TM: I think on that record, you have more character deaths than on any other one.

REK: Oh yeah. I think the body count on that record is around 40 on that one. It’s a high body count [laughs].

TM: A lot of what you’re known for as a songwriter is that great sense of narrative. You could say A Bigger Piece of Sky was when that began to really shine. Did you ever think of transitioning to other forms of writing though? Short stories or a novel or something?

REK: My sense of rhyme, poetry and writing within a song format is so much better than my prose. I seem to have a real problem putting a corral around my words when I go into prose. I don’t know when to stop. I just keep going and not even sure it’s making a lot of sense. One of the wonderful things about writing songs is it does create a certain boundary you have to work within. You can work within the confines of that particular piece. That’s always a really great comfortable feeling for me.

TM: One of those things that I always wonder about songwriters who write these great narratives is if they consider them to be part of the same shared universe. Do you think of your songs inhabiting that same canon?

REK: No, I really don’t. For instance, on Bigger Piece of Sky, a lot of those characters, they’re a lot more dreamlike than what I’ve typically worked with. A lot of times I try and be more journalistic with my description of characters. For instance, if you go to “Shades of Grey,” that’s a much clearer piece. You know what’s happened. Look at “Here In Arkansas,” what the hell is going on there? That’s much more murky and very dreamlike. Same with “Whenever Kindness Fails.” I’d say is “Blow You Away” is much closer to some kind of clarity, but it’s still pretty dreamy.

TM: Right. I’d compare a lot of those being filmlike. There’s a certain level of magic in film. I think there’s a certain mythical aspect to some of your most well-known characters. I’d call some of your songs like “The Road Goes On Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Corpus Christi Bay,” and “Whenever Kindness Fails,” they’re like these Texas epics. These characters live outside the parameters of a song. They’ve resonated with people in a way that goes beyond. Did you ever get that sense?

REK: Yeah. I feel like my effort in a song like “Gringo Honeymoon” or “Corpus Christi Bay” is some attempt to be real clear about those character traits or this one great moment in time. I’m not sure if you extended it, anything that interesting would happen. It goes back to the songwriting boundaries. It forces you to put just the right information into a small space. It should resonate with people. That’s what you hope. I’ve failed as many times as I’ve succeeded in that.

TM: That’s interesting. A lot of your songs, they’ve resonated with large groups of people. Songs like “Merry Christmas From the Family” and “The Road Goes On Forever,” people know every word and are singing along. They’re anthems. But you have another side of your work that’s more deeply rooted in folk storytelling.

REK: A good example of what you’re talking about there is “The Traveling Storm.” I love that song, but it doesn’t resonate with anybody. I play that for myself. In my mind, when I play that song, I have this great movie going. It’s more rooted in like a pre-Christ time. It has this great sense of people moving in caravans and people living on the land. This murderous character running across the land. I love it. But it doesn’t resonate. I did intentionally create that time frame for it. I don’t come out and say it though. So if you’re not paying attention, you may just think it’s like a Clint Eastwood western.

TM: Setting is so important to a lot your songs too. You really establish the land and time. Guy Clark and Terry Allen have that too. You’re instantly transported. So many of your songs, they’re set in West Texas or on the border. Has that always been an inspiration? Have you always been intrigued by setting?

REK: The landscape and outdoors has a great effect on me. I gravitate to it all the time. I realized a couple years ago that I had written 80% of my solo songs outside. It’s kind of weird. Even when it’s 50 degrees out, I’ll walk outside with a guitar and feel more comfortable than I would next to a warm fire. I’ll feel more comfortable trying to find what I’m trying to say. I’m sure others have experienced it, but it’s really specific to me and how I write. you can feel the air, the wind and the breeze. The sounds around you. When people ask if it’s the words or the music I start with, it’s actually more so the setting.

TM: What has been your favorite landscape muse?

REK: I seem to gravitate towards desert settings. I think that’s because of the vastness, but it also has to do with growing up in Houston. I do sit down and think I’ll write an urban setting song–and I have–but I have a much harder time because I don’t have the same love for that. When I was a kid, I had a lot of family out in West Texas. I’d spend Christmas and summers out there. It was always a great relief to me. I thought it was where I was supposed to be. I remember being 12 years old and arguing with my parents. I wanted to live out there with my grandmother. I felt like it was where I should be. I lost that argument of course [laughs]. For lack of a better term,  it has been rewarding for my own soul. It makes me feel good.

TM: You spent some time up in Nashville during the ’80s. That song “Leaving Tennessee,” that’s kind of like your version of “L.A. Freeway.” Did your time up there impact the way you thought about songwriting?

REK: In a way it did. It was so confining for me. I really suffered. You tend to shrink your songwriting palette. You’re compelled to use the word heart or love in something. You feel compelled to have a bridge in every song. It was a different set of rules from the ones that I had set for myself. At the time, I wrote terrible songs. I was really struggling. All I wanted was to get a chance to show my songs. It just didn’t work out. I had people literally close doors in my face [laughs]. There were a lot of people who told me how terrible they were and that I should just go home. I stuck it out for 22 months. When I got back and got to play by my own rules again, I just had a flood of creativity. It was a wonderful tsunami of ideas and thoughts. I wrote some really great stuff immediately after leaving there. In that way, Nashville had an incredibly positive effect on me.

Read More: See Randy Rogers and Robert Earl Keen Cover Willie Nelson’s ‘Shotgun Willie’

In retrospect, I have a greater appreciation. I never did hate Nashville. Let me be clear about that. I’m not a Nashville hater. A lot of the reasons I’m in the music business today is because of friends up there. But, I did totally fail there. Looking back now, I see some of the wisdom that I just couldn’t see then. Maybe I was just too stubborn or didn’t know enough.

One of my best friends who writes songs up there is Dean Dillon. He’s just a genius at writing a beautiful country hit. He can do it damn near all day long. I admire that ability. It’s expanded my thinking on what a song is and how you can develop a song from almost any angle.

TM: You and Dean wrote “West Texas Town” that was cut by George Strait. When you go into a something like that, are you thinking of how you would personally record the song and how it fits you as an artist or are you thinking about how others would?

REK: You know, Dean has a really great voice. When we wrote that song, he threw out that first line and I started telling him how this little trip could go. He was the guy who was singing so I didn’t really have to worry about that. But I’ve written with a lot of people since and I don’t have that gift or talent to think about how someone else sings it. I just sing it the way I sing. Sometimes I think my voice, it makes me distinct, but it doesn’t make me distinct in a way where others may want to sing my songs. Whether I’m sitting down by myself or with other writers, I just think in terms of writing a song that I can sing.

TM: I read in one of your interviews with Lone Star Music Magazine you saying you thought your writing had become maybe a little too complex for people to pick up on easily. You wanted to focus on being more straightforward. How do you do that? How do you step back and reaccess?

REK: The screenwriter Elmore Leonard, when he died, there was this list of his rules to writing that was printed in the New York Times. One of those that I remember vividly was, and I’m paraphrasing here, write your book or screenplay and then take out everything that you think is cool. Anything you think is really cool, it’s probably too inside. That’s something that I’d be thinking about when writing a song. If I think it’s cool and I think I’m being clever, it should probably go. I’ve gotten to where I’m hell on an eraser these days [laughs].

TM: You ended up rerecording “Paint The Town Beige” for Ready for Confetti. Was that because you felt you didn’t get right the first time around or more so because you felt a different attachment to it years later?

REK: A little of both. When I wrote it, I was really thinking of my father-in-law. He lived in this little town and had been working with him one day. I had been thinking about how he was kind of like this old outlaw. I was really writing from his perspective. There’s a mention of a fishing pole. Every chance he got, he’d go fishing. A big outdoorsman. At the time, I really wrote it for him. But it’s one of those things where it actually came true for me. I just felt like I needed to do something that was a little clearer. The Bigger Piece of Sky version, it’s a little more reverby with the electric guitar. We kind of stripped that down and had this classical acoustic guitar on it and played it pretty straight. Kind of like you were playing it live on an open mic night. I felt like it really represented me more than anything.

TM: The way time affects music and songs is so interesting. You can look at a song years after the first time you heard it and see something you didn’t understand or account for at any point before. How often does that happen to you?

REK: There’s a certain amount of you not knowing what you were doing when you wrote those words down. Then they come to life for you as you grow. There’s a certain–I don’t know–something beyond us. There’s something else out there, another knowledge, another dimension of understanding. I think people who are lucky enough to write and examine their own thoughts in that way, I think they will stumble upon that at times. I really find myself seeing some certain wisdom that I didn’t know I had in a song that could be 20 years old.

TM: Right. A part of your career that’s become legendary in many respects has been the live album and the live show in general. It’s not often you can track the growth of an artist’s fanbase if you weren’t there, but you can get a really great sense of that with you if you look at the differences between ’88’s The Live Album and No. 2 Live Dinner almost 10 years later. The crowd is entirely different. Was there a point in which you realized your fanbase had morphed into a singalong crowd and the atmosphere at shows had shifted?

REK: I almost have to track this in a linear way. In ’88, I did The Live Album at The Sons Of Hermann Hall in Dallas. I had this strong, but pretty small following. I was doing what was considered folk music in ’88. Matter of fact, the first records through West Textures, they were always put in the folk section at the record store. At that time, it was working for me. I was enjoying that. It’s really funny. I felt really strong about West Textures. I thought there was something there in the songs. But I couldn’t talk Sugar Hill into putting anymore behind it. It had this really weird arc where it basically did nothing for 18 months. It sold a handful of records, but it really picked up and kind of nowhere started getting more and more people showing up to the shows. It was kind of a surprise to me.

It was maybe playing to 200 hundred people at a time. And then, it just started growing. By the time I’d made Bigger Piece of Sky, I was started getting numbers like 800 to 1,000 people at these shows. They all knew “The Road Goes On Forever,” but they all knew “Mariano,” “The Five Pound Bass” and “It’s The Little Things.” It was all these songs from West Textures that had been flat on the sales. I’m not sure exactly how that happened. It certainly wasn’t from radio play. I had to go and build up my band thinking about if I was going to continue having these crowds, people are going to have to hear me. I can’t just keep playing my folk trio thing. It’s not having the impact.

If there was a moment in time where I went, “Wow, this is different,” it’d have been this time where I had raced from somewhere else to the show. It may have been Nashville. The show was in San Antonio. We were playing at this place that wasn’t really even a venue. It was more of an event center called Los Patios. I was late getting there. I had my guitar in hand and got out of the car and there was 1500 to 2000 people there. I said, “What the hell is going on here?” And someone said that this guy named Robert Earl Keen was playing there. I said, “Wow, that’s me!” I had to make my way through the crowd. It was thrilling and frightening all at the same time [laughs].

TM: I imagine so. You’ve done a few live albums, but one that I’d call more of a deep cut is Marfa After Dark. You’re not necessarily playing all the hits on there.

REK: You know, we had just recorded it for the heck of it. About that time, CDs had started crapping out and people started giving away music. I thought that was a good idea so I made it into a record to just give away. I sell it now, but I gave it away for a year. Anytime someone wanted a copy at a show or wrote to the office, we sent them out. I really enjoyed that one because, like you said, those were like the hits. I was really kind of goofing around talking between songs. It was a really relaxed show. It was fun. I enjoy playing, but I also enjoy when the audience is enjoying it. We’re all enjoying it as a group instead of people just watching an act play.

TM: Another deep cut in your career is your involvement in the musical Chippy (Chippy is a play written by Terry and Jo Harvey Allen). How’d you get involved in doing that?

REK: I had done some theater in college. When I graduated and moved to Austin, I did a pretty extensive play there. That show went on for about eight weeks. I had done some theater and really loved the communal aspect of theater. There’s a real bonding experience. They had done Chippy before, but it was more so like sketches. They were retooling it and had this opportunity to do it in Philadelphia for an extended period of time. Around that time, I was doing some shows with Joe Ely in the northeast. We were just hanging around together doing these guitar pulls. Joe was talking about Chippy. I told him, “I know you have plenty of people to do this, but I have done some acting and if there’s any chance I can do something with you and Terry, I’d just love to do it. He told Terry and Terry called me up. I got to hang around those guys. That was probably one of the best times of my life.

Now Watch: The Rising Country Stars of 2018

recommended for you

Robert Earl Keen Talks Songwriting, Storytelling and Legendary Career