Robert Earl Keen brings his 'yee-ha' spirit to Rocky Mount

Robert Earl Keen brings his 'yee-ha' spirit to Rocky Mount

By Tad Dickens | The Roanoke Times

One of the longest-running jokes in the music business involves requests for the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Freebird.” At some point in countless shows, at least one drunken audience member has hollered out a request for that Southern rock chestnut. Americana singer and songwriter Robert Earl Keen doesn’t have to worry so much about “Freebird” requests. After all, he’s got his own oft-requested number, “The Road Goes On Forever.”

Keen’s fans are always yelling for it.

“Fortunately, I really like the song and I really like playing it, and it’s a great way to close the set,” said Keen, who plays Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount on Wednesday. “I used to tell people it was my way of being able to close the set without playing ‘Freebird’ in the South. That was a good thing.”

Keen’s signature number, a classic in the story-song subgenre, is 25 years old this year, and it’s been 30 years since the Texan released his first album, “No Kinda Dancer.” Between then and now, Keen has gained confidence in his powers.

“When I first started, just in general, I could barely order a pizza,” Keen said Thursday in a phone call. “I was a really shy person. I liked music. I really had a knack for writing things and putting things together, but I didn’t realize how far it could go.

“At this point, I wish somebody would call me from Broadway and say, man, I wish you would write a musical for us. Because I could do it. I know I can do it.”

Keen has heard a lot of talk about following one’s dreams, but he thinks the people who talk about that are missing an important element of the process.

“They don’t finish it up by saying: You don’t know what’s inside you. You really don’t. Until you follow your dreams, you don’t know what you are capable of. Now I go: Why didn’t I know this before? I guess I knew it all the time; I just didn’t try it.

“You have to step out there and be brave. At this point … the sky is the limit for me.”

The critical success and fan-base building have continued to grow over the course of about 14 albums. His most recent was 2011’s “Ready for Confetti,” which received praise in horror author (and sometime musician) Stephen King’s Entertainment Weekly column that year.

“No weepy violins here; Keen is an ironist with a soft spot for both strivers and losers,” King wrote. “What makes this his best album is the giddy, sunshiny way it mixes up the genres — the reggae-and-pedal-steel mix of the title track, for instance, or the hypnotic rhythm of ‘I Gotta Go.’ ”

Even about three years later, one can hear the glee in Keen’s voice when he talks about that review.

“Isn’t that great? I thought that was so cool,” said Keen, adding that he is a “huge” King fan, having spent long periods of time reading everything he has written. “I never really think of anybody listening to my music,” he said. “People say they do. … It was a huge boost to hear that Stephen King liked the record.”

Keen recently recorded a bluegrass album with members of his backing band and a guest lineup that included Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins on fiddle, The Greencards’ Kym Warner on mandolin and Danny Barnes on banjo. Barnes, coincidentally, performed in Blacksburg with mandolinist Jeff Austin’s band just hours after this interview.

“Let me say this: Danny Barnes — and this is with all due respect to Bela Fleck — Danny Barnes is the greatest living banjo player on the Earth,” Keen said. “There’s no equal. It’s like seeing Vincent Van Gogh [paint]. He’s amazing.”

The disc should be available early next year. Keen said he has been consciously deliberate with its release. The record’s 15 songs sound “just like the bluegrass songbook,” full of tunes from the likes of Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, John Hartford and numbers from the public domain. There are no originals on it.

“I wasn’t trying to reinvent the bluegrass world,” he said. “I just wanted to do what I really grew up loving, which was traditional bluegrass music.

“It just came out great, and we really enjoyed doing it, and I’m really looking forward to it coming out. But I really sat down and I said, I’m not just throwing it out there. I’m going to make this great, because I’m such a longtime and passionate fan of bluegrass music.”

Meanwhile, his backing band for both the road and the studio — guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel guitarist Marty Muse — is kicking around some of that music in sound checks and the occasional encore, Keen said. Keen said he has equal confidence in his band, whether it is in a studio or onstage.

“New guy” Muse has been in the band 13 years, the rest about 20, and Keen aims to keep them on as long as they will stay. “I think people like that,” he said. “I think people that come out to see your shows are interested in seeing the same people. They want to feel like they’re getting something that they are used to.”

Other guests on the upcoming, Lloyd Maines-produced bluegrass album include the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and Lyle Lovett. Keen and Lovett have been great friends since they were in college together at Texas A&M.

“As Lyle likes to say, we’re real friends, we’re not just showbiz friends,” Keen said. “It is amazing to realize, especially as many artists as I’ve seen over the years, as many great musicians, how great your own real good friend is. Your almost lifetime friend is as good or better than anybody you’ve ever seen. He gets up there and, as they say, sings his ass off.”

Keen and Lovett are just two on an extensive list of Texans who have received great acclaim as singer/songwriters. Keen, asked what it is about Texas that breeds such talent, cited the “yee-ha syndrome,” which seems inscrutable but probably beats an academic answer.

“It’s like, you hit an oil well and you’re going ‘yee-ha’ and it’s time to dance and sing, you know,” he said. “Then you make a big plate of barbecue and you say ‘yee-ha’ again and you start singing and dancing and [creativity is] just sort of in the air, you know.”

“I think it would take a social scientist like Malcolm Gladwell to really figure out what’s going on. So I just stick with my yee-ha syndrome story.”

The syndrome should be in full effect on Wednesday.