A NEW DAY, A NEW SONG: Robert Earl Keen brings bluegrass, Americana and more to BAC
The singer-songwriter is first an entertainer in any endeavor, any stage and any role. Voices of the West in San Antonio asked Keen to be a guest lecturer, wherein he spoke for an hour and ended with a standing ovation. Something, he says he could get used to. “It wouldn’t hurt to get one those $100,000 that the Clintons get for talking,” he quips. “I’ve seen some of those lectures and they are boring . . . I can do that and take that check with pride, and I will flat-out entertain those people. They will enjoy it!”
Keen’s been around for roughly three decades, capturing hits here and there with his storytelling style in folk/country/Americana. In any respect, the Texan says entertaining is job he’s always been drawn to.
“Truthfully I think it’s my propensity to hang in there,” he says of long-term career. “I’ve been here doing this for 30 years with bands across the country from the out house to the White House, and . . . I have more and more fans coming up to me saying they got turned on to my music last year or six months ago.”
Despite his long career and status in the Americana community—including a Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Famer and 2015 recipient of BMI’s Troubadour Award to honors songwriters—Keen’s noticed more traction in recent years. “If I was stock I’d say you might not buy be now because I’m too expensive,” Keen jokes. “Things are way up and I hope they continue that way. . . . The word is certainly out.”
His latest album, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” (2015), made 2015’s Top 5 album list at Americana Radio and Billboard’s No. 2 album on the Bluegrass Album chart. “Happy Prisoner” is his first all-bluegrass record and represents continuous progression and expansion of his catalog.
“I’ve never been limited,” he says. “I’m a little bit more flexible—I’m not saying I’m better, but I always have been more flexible lyrically . . . I believe it’s been good and bad. Sometimes people like to hear what’s consistent with your sound and their idea of a song, but I get bored. So I’m always doing something different, and if you consider yourself an artist, really, your job is always pushing the envelop.”
Despite the success of “Happy Prisoner,” Keen refuses to be pigeonholed. He doesn’t want his shows to be predictable. “I’ve seen people ruin their careers by playing the same set, and then nobody wants to see them anymore,” he says. “I’m there to light the fuse and set the room on fire.”
Keen never knows what songs he’ll choose to balance a set list until his first soundcheck. As he’s playing a song with his band for sound and precision, he’s also gauging the room. From a small bar or honky tonk to a larger venue or festival stage, each are better served with something different.
“I usually think, This will work. This will work. This will not work,” he tells. “Some of it is totally by association and some is totally about getting a vibe. What would this group of people like? What kind of people are going to be here? Then I go back, put a set list together, and put it out there.”
It doesn’t end there, either. Keen’s philosophy for a good show is to figure out the audience and entertain them. Not the other way around.
“The great thing is [my band and I have] been playing together so long that if a song turns to crap [during the show], I can turn around to my bass player and start calling out something else,” he says. “In sports it would be called ‘an audible.’”
Keen also describes the album and its success as his seventh-inning stretch. Now is the time he can take a breath and figure out what’s next without restraint. His thoughts to the future flutter from a solo record, with just him on guitar and harmonica, or a jazz-influenced album. “So I can do anything I want to,” he continues.
While flexibility in his music is key, his adaptability in a new media landscape has impacted his work as well. People spend less time to consume media—anything from their news to their music. Yet, they also lessen their comprehension of reading and listening. In that vein, storytelling is becoming more and more condensed. So, Keen decided to go with it in the form of “abbreviated songs,” like “Our Municipal Airport.”
“My idea is you take a subject and write just as much as you need to write about it,” he explains. “If we’re talking about a standard format of either a country or pop song, we’ve got a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, chorus. So when you get to the part for the next verse and chorus, a lot of times you’ve actually kind of crapped out on the idea—you’re just sort of adding on stuff and putting more onions in the stew. All I want to do is say what I want to say about this particular subject and then I want to stop.”
Keen’s already getting ready for the next project, with a collection of songs and narrative coming together. Without too many details to share just yet, he knows he wants to present them in a different way. “I just haven’t figured that out yet,” he adds.