Robert Earl Keen has been a songwriter's songwriter ever since the days of the front porch pick-a-longs in his school days at College Station, Texas, playing bluegrass with Lyle Lovett and making a name for himself at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
His commercial success over the last several years has led to the rumor that he has shed his cult figure status, but Keen questions the concept of a cult following, noting the lack of likemindedness in his audiences "unless there's just a likemindedness in beer drinkers."
Known for good time anthems like "The Road Goes On Forever" and "This Old Porch," Keen has finally gained the national acclaim to equal the esteem fellow songwriters like Lovett, Steve Earle, Nancy Griffith and Junior Brown have held him in for nearly 20 years. Speaking from his home in Bandera, Texas, Keen talked with the Indy about his journey as a songwriter and performer.
Indy I've heard you play some cowboy tunes before and talk about your cowboy youth, being dressed like a cowboy by your parents. How much of the cowboy stuff was a part of your childhood?
REK Well, I like the music. My mom seemed to like it and we had a bunch of it--we had the Marty Robbins Gunfighter album, we had the Eddie Arnold Cattlecall, we had some Sons of the Pioneers stuff. It's just the first music that I remember really liking. There's a couple reasons. One is just the simplicity of it, it's always a pretty simple format as far as music, you know, guitars and bass and singing. And then the other thing is it almost always told a story, so I guess that's why I liked it too.
Indy Your songs are so narrative. Do you tend to think in terms of stories or in terms of lines?
REK I sit down with the guitar, and just strum chords. And it evokes certain images, sitting there. I kind of hum along. Then I maybe come up with the first line. I try to make the first line count, because it seems like that will always draw me into a certain amount of strength in the song. So I go from there. Once I get that first line in general, what I do is, I put some information in there. Then you start asking questions. You know the journalistic questions, the what, where, when, why, how questions. You follow one of those lines. Where, or when. And you usually get to the whys at the very end of the song. So, you move through that. Somehow I work best when characters are in motion. There's a lot of that going on.
Indy What do you mine by in motion?
REK In the words, as if you're telling a story, they're jumping on a car or on a horse or falling off of something or moving somehow. I work best when that happens. I think in cinematic terms I guess.
Indy Was there a point when you felt like you clicked into that mode as a songwriter, where the songwriting process caught and stuck with you?
REK I've found, only in retrospect, that I've followed this certain line of songwriting, writing narrative songs. It just seemed like the natural way to go to me. I never even thought about it. Until I moved to Nashville and realized that there were really two kinds of songs. There are the narrative songs and then there are the emotional songs. I've sat down and tried to write a bunch of emotional songs, and I'm either too uptight or too secretive or whatever, I don't allow an outpouring of emotion and [laughing] I have a hard time writing that song. Not that I haven't, but even in my best emotional songs I try to at least give the audience or the listeners some idea of "how did this come about? How did we do this?' So there's still some kind of story. It's never untouched absolute love, or sadness. It's never absolute. There's reasons why we get here.
Indy I guess by relying on characters to tell the story you can kind of distance things a little bit.
REK Well, I let people draw their own conclusions. Sometimes you can pull them through a darkness and then show them the answer at the end. That's the whole idea of just giving bits and pieces. I can give you examples of songs that I've written that didn't really have a real payoff. It just paints a really good picture and then you draw your own conclusions. I do that as well. That's more or less out of laziness probably. I don't know, sometimes it makes sense. Art, I mean paintings and stuff, sometimes the blurry ones are good.
Indy Nashville wasn't too productive for you I guess?
REK No, it was a real lesson. It's like that line they say, experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. In that way, I had so many revelations in Nashville. The problem was that I didn't fit the mold, and I tried fitting the mold and almost had a breakdown in doing it. I'm just too stubborn I guess. I always thought of writing as a certain kind of thing, not just something a producer does while he's waiting for the next act to come in and set up their drum set. It's a little too supercilious a process for me. I like really thinking about shit.
Indy When you left Nashville and went back to Texas, were you pretty confident about going back or did you feel like you were walking away from something?
REK Oh, I was scared to death. My wife and I decided to leave, and she was supportive in any way I wanted to turn. But when I finally decided lets move back, I thought, great. She moved back and then I had an incredible attack of buyer's remorse or whatever you would call it. Leaver's remorse. And thought, "Jesus, I've just stabbed myself in the foot. I'm bleeding to death here, I'm never going to get back.' I thought, maybe it was just around the corner, like you'd think would if you're gambling. You walk away and you still think "God, I've got ten more dollars squirelled away here in my wallet, I could probably win it back.' I really had a hard time in the end leaving, but I did. Had a hard time adjusting here, because I felt like my one real dream, I'd pursued it and I had failed.
Indy But ultimately the move worked.
REK Well, the move worked. I was too broken down and stubborn--I was really scared to get started on another job. It was a real turning point. Because on the one hand, I just said, okay, I'm not going to work, because if I get started I probably will just lose this whole idea of writing and singing and performing. So I stuck to that, clung to it stubbornly, but it was real rough. I mean, my wife got tired of me sitting around the house. And I couldn't write songs worth a shit "cause I was so damn miserable.
Indy You're somebody who has a strong sense of place, whether that's the geography of the place or the character of the place. How has that sense of place been important to your music?
REK It's more cosmic or dreamlike for me. I work well when I create a big old wide-open setting, some kind of desert landscape or something. Whereas, I've sat down and tried to write songs about some experience I had in New York, and they just don't work. It's just too dark and black and I guess I'm kind of confused or scared or something and I have yet to be able to do that. Don't know why. Can't really tell you. But once I start, if I go west in my mind and I start opening up with some vast horizon it just starts happening.
Indy You've been described as painting pictures of the Old West, but there's a new west in your songs also.
REK Well, I'm not trying to be some kind of neo-traditionalist. I take bits and pieces of real period stuff and throw them in--you know--I'll go back and forth in time. I like that. It's a fun thing-- In "Whenever Kindness Fails," the line "In the spring of "91" was really 1991, but it could have been 1891. The whole idea was, it's really a modern day setting and it sounds like an ancient, you know, a hundred years before.
Indy I was actually thinking about that song and a song from Walking Distance, "That Bucking Song," as a couple of the kind of songs that you're really well known for, they're humorous and songs that seem to build to or around a punch line.
REK I really write "em as a relief from being too serious about stuff. I never start off trying to be funny, because I'm not good at that. I'm a lot funnier being unconscious about it. It's almost a release from--for instance, "The Bucking Song," I was really in the throes of writing a bunch of this more serious stuff on Walking Distance and I just about broke my brain. I went, "I gotta write something just banging around here.' So I did.
Indy You cover Norman Blake on the album, and I've heard you play Townes van Zandt and Steve Earle songs. What is that attracts you enough to cover a song like those?
REK Basically it's a song I wish I could have written. It's a song that sounds like me. But I know, and maybe I'm the only one that knows, that I couldn't have written it. So it's a stretch. And the idea is to put songs out there so other people hear them. If it helps him sell more records or get any more people at a show, that's what I'd like because I've been a fan of Norman's since the first record I ever heard and every record since.
Indy How do you approach a concert in terms of trying to think about the structure and the pace? Are there some key points you want to make sure you get to?
REK I go into a place at sound check and somewhere between sound check and the show I write a set list, and most of the time it's just based on how I feel about the room. Maybe, sometimes I try to second guess what kind of audience I'm going to have. But for the most part I'm always going to put in a certain amount of really well known songs and then throw in some songs that nobody knows or more obscure songs that the real quiet person might wait the entire time to ask me, "Why didn't you play "If I Were King" or something.' I try to throw in a couple of those. Number one, it's always a mix. I never follow albums. Those are real true rules that seem to apply. I never tour after an album and just play that record and a couple of the old songs. I just mix "em all up.
Indy Your bio says that you're no longer a cult figure. The last time I saw you there was still a sort of cult following in the audience, if that's the right word.
REK Well, I don't know, but you'd have to have a definition of cult following.... When people say following, I would almost have to say that that would imply that there's a likemindedness in the audience. And I don't think that that's true. Unless there's just a likemindedness in beer drinkers.
Indy Do you feel that you've changed your approach to songwriting or the way you make albums with your last couple of releases?
REK I really took a conscious approach in Walking Distance to be more general and more obvious and less inside. I didn't feel as needy to be real detail-oriented. Some of the stuff is more vague. "Feeling Good Again" is crystal clear. Whereas "Carolina," as somebody put it one time, is "marvelously murky." That was an intention. I wanted to get that particular set of songs, what somebody called the suite or something, "Desperado Suite,' I just love it, why do people say shit like that? But anyway, I knew that I had a big chunk to pull off to do that so I felt like if I got too pin-point detailed I would drive myself crazy. So I had to keep it a little more open, more general.
Indy That album has this serious quality to it. You mentioned having "The Bucking Song" as a release to that. It also seemed to me like the choice to let the album end and then have the bonus track, the Christmas Song after it--
REK Right. Admittedly a mistake.
Indy Oh really? Why would you say that?
REK "Cause I was talked into it and I didn't want to do it and I fought it then I said fuck it, I'm not going to fight this any more. Mistake. I wish I had never done it. I would cut it out today if I could.
Indy Otherwise the album ends on a pretty serious note--
REK Yeah, and it has a real completeness to me. In my mind. Then all of a sudden you put this sort of bizarre pots and pans banging bullshit in there, and it's like, "hey, we were real serious, but fuck it, we're not.' I think it throws out a mixed message and I didn't like it and I wished I wouldn't have done it. Maybe I'll stand my ground a little tighter next time. But here's the other thing, you know. My roundabout way to become more mainstream, getting kicked out of Nashville then building my own thing down here then getting accepted again, when I went back and got signed to Arista and stuff like that, I really wanted to be a player. I wanted to go "hey, I'll work with you guys.' But I found at every turn I was fighting with them. All the time. Because I thought I knew maybe ten times more about what I did than they did. And they were just guessing. I played a showcase for Walmart or K-Mart with Brittany Spears and "N Synch, and I was between "em. I went away from that going "don't ever do that to me again. I don't need that. The only reason I was there was filler to take up the space between those two people. The whole buzz was about them. It wasn't about me and I was used and you guys didn't realize it. And you thought you were getting lucky cause you got me on the goddamn slot, and the fact was it was a bad idea and don't ever do it to me.' But that was the kind of stuff that happened all the time. Here's the deal: the record company creates their plan. It doesn't mean that the plan is for the individual. It's a plan for a record. You can put Bob Smith's name on it, you can put "N Synch's name on it, but you can't put my name on it because I didn't work that way. That's not how my career has worked.
Indy Are you still with Arista?
REK Well, Arista folded. I'm in the midst of not having a record company. I'm just taking in offers. It's kind of weird, it's like selling a house or something. You know, I get a faxed offer every day. And they get bigger and bigger and it's almost becoming kind of silly. I love it. I get to be just like those internet guys. I'm a holograph!
Indy Have you got some new songs you're playing in concert?
REK No. I haven't even unleashed the songs that I've written on the band.
Indy Do you try them out in concert before you go in the studio?
REK Well, no. I have found that it is a lot easier to sit in a rehearsal room and go over these songs and try to record them so everybody's paying attention "cause they know they gotta play something well. I like the idea of having them recorded and then everybody making sure that they got the idea of the song. I don't think you get the idea of the song till you hear it back. I don't. It's a bizarre thing to have it in my head--I mean, it's almost a miracle that it works at all. It's just really weird to me that this stuff that I come up with, I sit around and play the guitar, I make up these words, and all of a sudden somebody else actually relates to it. How did that happen? My mind is a real sick puppy and I don't know how I relate to anybody at all.
Indy You once said that "songland is a fantasyland." What did you mean by that?
REK It's a fantasyland in that it is the only thing left in my life that takes me away from what's going on, what's closing in on me or threatening me. It's the only thing that takes time away too. I can sit there writing on a song and I'll look up and it's three hours later. And I'll go, how did that happen? It's like getting into a great book or something.
Indy Who do you think of as some of your closer musical peers?
REK Oh, I think Steve Earl's a close musical peer. I think Lyle, even though he's in a whole different stratosphere, but that's mainly because I guess I've known him for a long time. He certainly influenced my writing. I don't know if I did his, but I'm relatively certain I did. People like Junior Brown. Junior and I hung out in Austin together when he lived in his car. Butch, Jimmy, and Joe, Terry Allen, all those guys. Some of them are older, some of them are younger. That's about where I fall into.
Indy In "This Old Porch" you talk about not playing any Eagles music on the porch. What did you guys play on the porch?
REK We really played bluegrass. Really kind of string bandy, Red Wings, Down Yonder, almost "30s string band music. But mixed with bluegrass and some straight country stuff. What we really wanted to do was be a bluegrass band. It was my opinion that we never sounded like a bluegrass band and we should just do what we could do. But we worked far too hard on three-part harmonies and banjo licks and stuff, as far as I'm concerned.
Indy Well, here's my last question. This is sort of random, but do you remember as a kid when you first became aware of what it meant to be cool?
REK I just remember Bobby Fox. He was in fourth grade and he was cool. I thought, "I ain't like that guy. What's going on? How do I be like that guy?'
Indy Did you know?
REK No, I had no idea. You can fake it, but it's something that you're born with.