Robert Earl Keen discusses his Americana podcast and return to Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Robert Earl Keen
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $45-$50
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: Special guest Aubrie Sellers opens
If Robert Earl Keen had to put a genre stamp on his music, it’d be Americana. But if you asked him to define Americana, the Texas singer-songwriter’s response wouldn’t be all that simple.
So last year Keen did what you do these days when you have more questions than answers and a passion. He started a podcast.
On his “Americana Podcast: The 51st State,” Keen has talked about the form with the likes of Jamestown Revival, Lucero, Bruce Robison and the White Buffalo. Last week he launched its second season with guest Drew Holcomb.
Nobody has really defined what “Americana” music is, he argued, so he sees it as the musicians’ job to do it.
“There wasn’t a unified discussion taking place with the genre from the artist’s perspective,” Keen said last week via email on break from a tour that will bring him to the Wheeler Opera House on Wednesday. “A lot of people have seen me over the years and go, ‘I don’t know what you are, but I like it.’ I think a lot of people out there really just aren’t hip to (Americana) at all, they don’t know what it is. The more we talk about, define and expand it, the more people will get on board with it, the stronger it becomes.”
The podcast project also is a way for Keen to stay connected to fellow artists, he said, as the cycle of touring and writing can be isolating.
“You can get out in your own solar system, spin out into the universe and never return. I’m always trying to rope myself back in,” he said.
It’s sparked relationships with younger musicians than Keen, 64, and given him a chance to have long and substantive conversations he might not have otherwise.
“There are so many other avenues in the music business to explore in a creative way,” he said. “I thought this would really, really be good as one of those trying-to-give-back kinda things. The fresh viewpoints are great.”
Keen’s witty and literate songs have earned the Houston native a crossover appeal beyond country fans and far outside the confines of Texas country. He’s never paused his continuing education in music appreciation. A case in point that preceded the podcast: his 2015 bluegrass project, “Happy Prisoner,” for which he surveyed the form going back to the 1910s and made an album of covers with collaborators including Lyle Lovett, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, and mandolin player Kym Warner of the Greencards.
“I went in with a great deal of apprehension from always loving bluegrass but never being a true bluegrass player,” Keen recalled. “My desire, my passion sort of overrode my fear.”
He said he started by writing down 100 bluegrass songs that he knew and wanted to cover, eventually whittling it down to the 15 on the album (plus five more on the digital version).
“They’re all songs that I’ve known and loved for a long time,” Keen said. “That album was me exploring something I have always loved.”
Keen hasn’t released a proper album since “Happy Prisoner” five years ago. But, as always, Keen is working on new music and testing out songs on the road. Recent additions to the catalog include a mournful ballad with the working title “Silver Spurs and Gold Tequila” and a heartrending cover of John Prine’s “Hello in There,” which he covered at the ceremony where Prine received the BMI Troubadour Award in 2018 (Keen won it the previous year). A video of Keen performing the cover, released on YouTube last year, with Kym Warner playing a delicate mandolin alongside Keen, is a marvel.
Wednesday night’s show brings Keen back to the Wheeler, where he has been a regular for decades. He is known to wait to write his set list until the day of a show, when he can walk the empty venue, feel out the place and decide whether he might play old fan favorites like “Feelin’ Good Again” and folky offerings like “Gringo Honeymoon,” choose from his favorite covers and his anthem “The Road Goes on Forever,” which, for an artist who has been on tour more or less constantly since the mid-1980s, also is a simple truth.