Robert Earl Keen Plays with Short Songs
Texas singer-songwriter and Americana chart topper Robert Earl Keen is a brilliant storyteller, often lacing his lyrics with dry wit as he turns an observant eye on the human condition. An Americana hero known for his hits “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and “Merry Christmas from the Family,” Keen’s musical roots are firmly planted in bluegrass. He spent his college years playing grass in a four-piece band at Texas A&M where he pursued an English degree when he wasn’t picking with friends like fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett.
On his most recent release, 2015’s Happy Prisoners: The Bluegrass Sessions, Keen returned to his early influences, covering fifteen of his favorite tunes with the help of some very talented guests (The Greencards’ Kym Warner, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, The Bad Liver’s Danny Barnes, buddy Lovett, and more.)
Not one to sit back for long, lately Keen has turned his significant songwriting talents to creating what he calls “abbreviated songs” – tunes that last less than two minutes and that are specifically targeted for the short attention span culture.
“We’re all going different directions at different times,” Keen explained of his decision to try his hand at succinct song craft. “I’m not judging anybody about this. I’m just saying that’s how it is…So my idea was just to try to get to the meat. Instead of the time-honored tradition of saying one thing over and over and over and hoping that it will get in your head, I just want to say it one time in a really strong way and stop, and then maybe that will work just as well.”
Keen finds the challenge rewarding. “Not in the monetary sense,” he laughed. “In the sense of great satisfaction and getting a huge kick out of it.”
According to Keen, the key is knowing when to stop.
“The trick is saying this is enough, even if you feel like there is more,” he commented. “A lot of times when you write a song, you feel like you have to get to a certain point, that there’s this mystical unknown in front of you about this particular song. There’s this feeling that you need to get to that point. In this particular exercise, it’s just really about ‘have I said what I wanted to say,’ and if I can answer ‘yes,’ then I stop.”
For Keen, less can sometimes mean more when it comes to lyrics.
“What’s unsaid is what’s the best part,” he noted. “People like to imagine what could this be about, or is he really serious? Some of the stuff is sort of serious. It’s like poetry in a way except I don’t really adhere to a stream of consciousness poetry. This is not like that because, in general, it has a melody and it rhymes.”
Keen is contemplating a new record – one that might just be loaded with twenty tiny tunes.
“My idea is that if I can accumulate enough of this that I’m really happy with, that would be the new album,” he laughed.
In the meantime, he’s having a great time playing with the format, and for Keen, that’s important.
“Really and truly, during my whole career, the things that work best are the things that I’m doing to entertain myself,” he said. “My best example is my Christmas song. I wrote that because there was no Christmas song that applied to growing up in Houston, Texas. When I wrote it, I didn’t write it for anybody. I just wrote it because it was around Christmas time, and it occurred to me that there was no Christmas song for me, so I was going to write one. I spent the next three hours playing it over and laughing my ass off. So I like to do things that I enjoy.”