Robert Earl Keen Jr. to perform in Durango
FARMINGTON – Robert Earl Keen Jr. long ago established himself as one of the more interesting, literate and thoughtful artists operating in the Americana genre. But the picture-perfect story-songs the Texas native has specialized in writing and recording over the course of his long career could just as easily have qualified as short stories, putting Keen’s best work on the same level as that of such fiction writers as the late, great Larry Brown.
Keen — who returns with his band Tuesday, April 26 to the Community Concert Hall in Durango, Colo. — routinely crafts fully realized, multi-dimensional tales in the space of a three- or four-minute song, a rare skill that he has had at his command since he broke on to the national scene in the early 1990s, earning him comparisons to the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
Whether he’s writing about a likable but hell-raising offshore oil rig worker who can never quite seem to put his carousing ways behind him (“Corpus Christi Bay”); a gun-toting, train-riding sociopath who takes offense at the slights of his fellow passengers a tad too easily (“Whenever Kindness Fails”); an adventure-seeking, small-town waitress and her ex-Navy boyfriend who quickly find themselves in a no-win situation during a drug deal gone wrong (“The Road Goes on Forever”), or a group of minor-league young miscreants from Kansas who get caught up in the desperate manhunt that ensues in the wake of the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 (“Shades of Gray”), Keen demonstrates he has few equals at tying so many narrative threads together in such a short amount of time and packaging it in an appealing, rootsy musical fashion.
While most of the characters populating his work are the product of his imagination, the songs themselves frequently are inspired by actual events, people or places, he said.
“I would say almost always,” Keen said during a telephone interview last week from San Antonio, where he was enjoying one of those only-in-Texas experiences — watching his daughter play golf at a course near San Antonio that doubles as a dove-hunting range. “I’m always grabbing a piece of real life. For instance, my song ‘The Great Hank’ was inspired by the time I saw a transvestite in Hank Williams garb, and it’s me in Philadelphia seeing this. I created it around my own connection with Hank Williams.”
In the song, Keen’s character recalls making a long, cross-country drive as a love-struck 16-year-old boy with a 28-year-old, recently divorced, stunningly beautiful woman in a VW Bug. The two pass the time by listening to an 8-track tape of Williams and performing two-part harmony on “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
Decades later, it’s still a powerful memory for Keen.
“Every time I hear that song, I’m usually ready to go take a cold shower,” he said.
“Shades of Gray” doesn’t conjure up the same fond recollections. Keen was driving north on Interstate 35 toward Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, for a gig that evening when disgruntled Army veteran Tim McVeigh parked a rental truck containing a massive fertilizer bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. When the bomb went off, it killed 168 people, leaving the entire city, and much of the nation, dazed and grieving.
With a full band to pay and travel expenses to cover, Keen went on that night as scheduled in Oklahoma City. But he remembers it as one of the uncomfortable and surreal nights of his life.
“It was kind of a great tragedy,” he said. “Everything just seemed to go totally quiet. We ended up playing to a full house, but everybody was in a fog. We drove back to Texas right after the show, and I don’t think we did anything that whole weekend. I was stunned at how something like that could put the brakes on everything nationwide.”
Tragic as it was, Keen managed to find artistic inspiration from the experience, writing the song that would become “Shades of Gray.”
“I was already working on a travel song,” he said. “It was about some juvenile delinquents, and it occurred to me these guys could be misunderstood as some great criminals.”
Then the bombing took place, and Keen found himself uncomfortably close to a history-making event.
“That was some light bulb moment,” he said, explaining that while his song related the tale of a group of kids who had committed a petty crime, Keen chose to link that situation to a real story that overshadowed the minor transgression of his characters, thereby casting his story against a larger backdrop with a bigger meaning.
In other cases, Keen said he takes considerably less poetic license with the facts.
“Sometimes, I’m totally journalistic about it,” he said, citing his tune “Gringo Honeymoon” as an example. “That’s just a flat-out event-by-event journal.”
As gifted as he is at putting such songs together, Keen may be even better at identifying and performing songs written by other talented songwriters that fit him like a glove. He puts his own memorable stamp on such tunes as “Fourth of July” by Dave Alvin, “Amarillo Highway” by Terry Allen, “Travelin’ Light” by Peter Case, “Tom Ames’ Prayer” by Steve Earle and “Levelland” by James McMurtry.
“I usually try to do a couple of covers on every record,” he said. “The only way I’ve been able to break that down is, I pick songs I feel would be within my scope to write, but that I couldn’t write. Maybe it’s an emotion or just a word choice, but I pick songs that sound like me but that I know personally I could not write that song.”
Keen chose to devote his last album, 2015’s “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions,” exclusively to such standards as “Long, Black Veil,” “T for Texas” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” Keen started out as a bluegrass musician and said releasing a disc in that genre was something he always intended to do.
“I love bluegrass,” he said. “It’s the music I listen to on my own. I love blues, too, but I’ll never be a blues singer. Bluegrass is an art form that doesn’t tax me when I listen to it. I just enjoy it. That’s the deal.”
Keen was joined on the album by such guest performers as Peter Rowan, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, Kym Warner of the Greencards and, of course, Lyle Lovett, his old buddy from their days together as students at Texas A&M. But, as he has throughout his career, he also uses his touring band as his studio band, something few artists of his stature make a habit of.
His willingness to make that commitment has allowed Keen to keep his core group — lead guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, dobro player Marty Muse, and percussionist and vocalist Tom Van Schaik — together for the better part of two decades. Keen said there’s no secret to achieving that kind of stability — it’s simply a matter of treating your people right and maintaining good communication.
“I’ve always gotten along really well with other musicians because I’ve always been a person who listens to the music community,” he said, explaining that he has taken care to address the concerns of the people who play with him by providing them with health insurance and using them in the studio as well as on the road. “It’s easy if you just listen. But (the music business) is the most cannibalistic business you can imagine, and most people just eat each other up.”
Keen said it just makes good business sense to maintain a stable lineup.
“The advantages, I can’t even begin to put a number on it,” he said. “But mostly, when you get up there every night, you know what’s going to happen. And if it’s not happening, you know why.”
He laughed off the idea that the force of his personality has anything to do with his ability to keep musicians around for a long time.
“I’m not that likable, I promise you that,” he said.
That same band has been with Keen not just through every studio album since 1996, but a series of live recordings, as well. Keen seems to genuinely enjoy releasing such discs, which is not surprising, given how famously enthusiastic many of his fans are and how they remain devoted to his music even as the years go by.
“I believe that people come to see us because they like to have fun,” he said. “A lot of times, the non-fans, the industry people, when they come to see us, they can’t believe people know all the words to all my songs. And the truth is, we probably have more people like that now than ever, although the really crazy times, like when people try to climb on stage, never happen anymore.”
Many years ago, Keen fretted in a Texas Monthly article that those kinds of displays were threatening to derail his career by putting off new fans. But that’s not the case anymore, and Keen said he’s never lost his fondness for performing before a live audience.
“In general, it’s just about people,” he said of his approach to making music. “The live thing is where I live ... We’re performers at heart. When I first got into the music business, I thought everybody loved performing, but apparently that’s fairly rare, even though I know people like Todd Snider, Fred Eaglesmith and Lyle Lovett who live and die through performing.”
For his next album, Keen said he’s working from a theme of “short songs for a short attention span.” He’s planning on releasing a disc of tunes limited to 90 seconds on subjects as mundane as his municipal airport. The idea is to “get in and get out,” he said, as he trudged down the fairway of the golf course, offering his daughter advice on her swing and remarking on the unexpectedly hot weather of an early-spring day in south Texas.
“I’ll probably write one about sunscreen,” he said, laughing.