Independent Record Interview - Robert Earl Keen’s songs paint picture big as TexasRobert Earl Keen’s songs paint picture big as Texas
Robert Earl Keen is connected. In a recent phone interview with the Independent Record from his home in Kerrville, Texas, Keen spoke of his fondness for his iPhone and his intentions to invent an app that makes him invisible. But it’s the connections his fans make with his songs that have kept him on the road for so long.
“I’m a man of the people — a 21st century man of the people — I like to make that distinction these days,” Keen says. “But it’s so funny in this world, with the onslaught of so much stuff going on, there’s a lot of people who just like to hear the sound of an acoustic guitar and some words. It’s surprising. There’s a lot of people who are genuinely attracted to gadgets, but there’s still a lot of people who like simple sounds.”
Keen, who will headline the Saturday night lineup at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival, has been creating those simple sounds for three decades — ever since he and his buddy Lyle Lovett would sit on the front porch of Keen’s rental house on Church Street in College Station, Texas, on Sunday mornings and perform for the Presbyterians as they filed into church.
Since then, Keen has released more than a dozen records and performed thousands of concerts. Arguably, his most famous song is “The Road Goes on Forever,” which debuted on his 1989 album “West Textures.” After its release, Keen concert audiences grew quickly from 150 to 1,500. Red Ants Pants is expected to draw at least 8,000 people over three days.
This will be Keen’s first appearance at Red Ants Pants; he said he and his band, which includes Rich Brotherton on guitar, Bill Whitbeck on bass, Tom Van Schaik on drums, and Marty Muse on steel guitar, usually take the month of July off. This year the band is taking August off instead and White Sulphur Springs is the final stop on Keen’s July tour.
“It’s my destination vacation,” he said.
Keen and his band, who he has played with for 20 years, have been to Montana at least 10 times, but they’ve never stopped in or even heard of White Sulphur Springs, he says. His past Montana visits, though, convinced him that it couldn’t be a bad place.
“As a state, (in addition to) the natural beauty, I’ve always had great experiences there,” he says.
The Montana leg of the tour will also give him a respite from what he called the “biblical” conditions of a Texas summer — no clouds, relentless sun.
“We truly have suffered,” he says. “We’ve had seven years of bad luck. It was draining. You couldn’t really get going on anything. I considered moving, but I’ve been here too long. My roots are too deep.”
Keen’s roots do indeed run deep, at least musically. When asked why Texas produces and inspires such great songwriting, the Houston native credited Davy Crockett.
“I believe Texas has always been a very musical state,” he explained. “Let’s say Davy Crockett was basically the music Mohammed for the religion of music. He started it there in Tennessee, which would be like the Mecca. He had to go to Medina and he went all the way to the Alamo and he played his fiddle. It started there. And from then on people thought in terms of the greatest Texan and music, and there it is…
“I made that up just then,” Keen said and laughed.
But if it’s hard for Keen to explain in words the Texas connection, it comes through when he writes his music.
“Setting is the most important thing to me,” Keen said. “Sometimes I wish I was an emotional writer — that I could write some incredible, melodic, beautiful Stevie Wonder type of song where I could just scream out how much I love everything … I just don’t write that way. I strum the guitar until I get a picture in my head and then I start filling out that picture.”
Many of his songs are based on his own experiences — “Gringo Honeymoon” — or people he’s seen or met — “Ready for Confetti,” on his most recent album, is based on a woman who walks around Kerrville and a guy he knew in Nashville who claimed to be psychic when it came to pitching potentially chart-topping songs.
Keen said he does most of his writing in what he calls his scriptorium.
“It’s a building on the side of a hill; it has a great view. It’s not a big place, but it has big doors that open up to the great view. There’s a fire pit and a homemade grill I made.”
Keen said the scriptorium has a small bed, shelves full of Western books and four or five guitars.
“There’s also a refrigerator where I can keep deer sausage, white bread and some mustard for food,” he said. “I stay out there for 10 days at a time. I eat deer sausage and strum guitars. When I get bored with that, I read some books. When I get bored with that, I go back to strumming guitars.”
Keen said when his 10 days are over, he usually has about five or six really good songs and three “terrible, silly songs.”
He doesn’t take his iPhone to the scriptorium.
“It’s a true disconnect,” Keen said. “As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten more difficult to be alone. I have a real hard time the first couple of nights.”
But then he settles in.
“When you get disconnected, you’re open-minded,” he said.
-By PEGGY O’NEILL
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