The song is the thing with Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen began writing poetry and song lyrics at the age of 7. So even though he didn’t pick up guitar until the surprisingly late age of 18, he knew in his mind that writing songs would be part of his future.Keen says, however, that he didn’t know what kind of songwriter he would be. Apart from realizing that he didn’t want to write big, fluffy pop tunes, he wasn’t sure what sort of songs would flow from his pen.But shouldn’t it have been obvious? A product of Houston, growing up in the mid-’70s, showing an early taste for literate lyrics, it seems, in retrospect, inevitable that Keen would join the line of Lone Star Staters that is so illustrious it is a genre unto itself: the Texas singer-songwriter.It is, no doubt, a categorization that fits Keen. Like such Texas forebears as Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Willis Alan Ramsey, and his contemporary Lyle Lovett – his best friend from their years together at Texas A&M – Keen has built a catalog that is equal parts wit, lit, romantic longing and border-town twang. As is the case with the aforementioned musicians, Keen shows respect for the song, above all. And over the years since the release of “No Kinda Dancer,” his self-financed 1984 debut, he has learned much about the musical history from which he rose.”Historically, this bounces right off the music tradition created by Bob Wills, and some of the Texas swing bands in the ’20s and ’30s, and Ray Price and Ernest Tubbs,” said Keen, in a phone interview with The Aspen Times. “They wrote these songs, and it became something, that you write your own little take on the world. Then it mushroomed into Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark.”The label of Texas singer-songwriter become such a recognizable niche that it has attracted those aspiring to the title. “Then it became a thing,” said Keen. “Even a guy who spent a week in Texas wanted to be considered a Texas songwriter. People want to be part of it.”Keen has come by his credentials honestly. Studying English literature at Texas A&M, Keen spent much of his college life driving back to Houston, 100 miles south of College Station, to see club performances. What attracted him wasn’t that these musicians had made it big, but almost the opposite: There was an intimacy and a familiarity to what they wrote and how they performed.
“A lot of these songs were accessible to me,” said Keen, who turns 49 on Wednesday, two days after his concert at the Wheeler Opera House, his first Aspen appearance in about a decade. “It wasn’t just a song on the radio or a guy with a big band. It was a few people in a club and I could watch them and learn their songs.”Even when the names were bigger, or the songs did come over the radio, there was an identification. Keen skipped his senior prom to see Nelson, a huge influence for him, not in a massive field or stadium, but at the midsize club, the Half Dollar. “And it was people dancing and drinking, not him in the spotlight. That took a hold for me,” said Keen. Keen first heard Guy Clark’s voice on the radio, but it didn’t seem as if the iconic Texas storyteller was all that far away.
“I remember the first time I heard Guy Clark on the radio, [his song] ‘Rita Ballou,’ and I thought, gosh, I know that narrator really well. I know that character,” said Keen. “It put something that was way out in the stratosphere together with something that was right there next to me. I felt like I could be part of it as well.”Keen felt the invitation strongly enough that much of his college existence was spent chasing the music. He acquainted himself with song structure by learning every song in “The 10 Greatest Country Songs Ever Written” songbook. He became accomplished on guitar by playing in a series of string bands. And all of his ideas were fleshed out in an intense collaboration with Lovett, a journalism major.”We spent every day, every waking moment together for a few years there. It was one of those deals where you lose track of time,” said Keen. Among the fruits of that collaboration was “The Front Porch Song,” which both would later record. (Lovett’s version was renamed “This Old Porch.”)Keen and Lovett developed similar song-writing sensibilities. Both writers are heavy on humor. Where Lovett’s humor tends to be more sly and clever, Keen’s is broader and jokier. “Merry Christmas From the Family,” from his 1994 album “Gringo Honeymoon,” envisions the holidays in the white-trash trailer park: “When they tried to plug the motorhome in / They blew our Christmas lights.””I always liked humor. I always thought humor was a way to get immediate gratification,” said Keen. “I wasn’t much of a singer; I didn’t like the sound of my own voice. So I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to be the notes that carried my message. It would be the words. And if you have a lyric or a punch line, you know right away if it works.”
The knot of Texas singer-songwriters shares more than a common geographical background and line of work. There is a true sense of community. Lovett frequently tours with Guy Clark and Joe Ely. Keen covers songs by Van Zandt and Terry Allen; he contributed a recording of Van Zandt’s “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold” to “Poet” a 2001 tribute album to the late Van Zandt. In one of the most thorough and enjoyable celebrations of the community, the 1998 double-CD “Step Inside This House,” Lovett honors a slew of Texas songwriters by covering their material, including Keen’s “Rollin’ By.” Lovett’s “Record Lady,” from the 1994 album “I Love Everybody,” opens with the line, “Robert Earl, this friend of mine.” (Keen got a recent name-check from a more unlikely source: Garth Brooks’ new box set, “The Limited Series,” features a new song, “That Girl Is a Cowboy,” that mentions both Keen and his song, “That Buckin’ Song.” Another high-flying fan of Keen’s is Bill McArthur, commander of the International Space Station. Keen recently serenaded McArthur via a very long-distance phone call.)Following in the footsteps of Nelson, most of the crew has left Texas, only to return to stay. Keen himself had a brief stay in Nashville early on before settling in Austin. For the last 10 years he has lived, with his wife and two daughters, in the Kerrville area, 100 miles west of Austin.Keen has also done road time with his brothers. He used to open shows for Lovett. And for a year and a half in the late ’80s, he toured as the opening act for a bill that featured Van Zandt and Clark. What made the experience for Keen was that it was a time when Van Zandt was relatively sober. “That first year, he decided he would only drink beer – because he didn’t like beer,” recalled Keen. “He figured he couldn’t drink enough to get really sloshed.”That period, added Keen, came to a memorable end in Aspen. At a Wheeler gig, someone gave Clark a bottle of vodka, Van Zandt’s libation of choice. Clark stashed it in the green room, but not securely enough. Clark and Keen discovered the bottle drained, a glassy-eyed Van Zandt next to it, protesting his innocence. “That was the beginning of the end of the end,” said Keen of Van Zandt, who died in 1997.
Keen has put plenty of energy into being a touring musician. His band – guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik – has been intact for more than a decade, and plays some 180 nights a year. Keen says he understands that some people favor some of his albums over others, or even find some of his songs subpar. But he defends his band to the end. “As an act, we have a really good groove,” he said.Still, Keen will likely forever be identified, at least in name, not as a touring musician, but as a Texas singer-songwriter. The term fits.”The whole creative process, I’m so lucky to have that sort of interest and talent,” said Keen, who released his latest studio album, his ninth, “What I Really Mean,” earlier this year. “I find that fills me up, to feel content and balanced, to write something I’m really happy with.”That’s the fun part of writing, when it comes out of the pen, onto the paper, and you look at it and say, ‘Wow!'”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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