Robert Earl Keen on creativity, freedom and faith in the underdog

“Creativity begets beauty,” wrote Americana singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen in a recent email to us.

Keen should know. He’s now 30 years and 19 albums into a career that grew from a self-funded and -produced debut album into an acclaimed run of songwriting that’s begotten plenty of beauty. Of course, no one’s story goes as planned.

“I don’t know what I expected. I wanted to play,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was so competitive. I love to compete but was taken aback by the lack of camaraderie within the music community. Maybe I was moving in the wrong circles, but it seems to be a common complaint with everybody at one time or another. It took me a long time to digest that aspect. Now, I work like hell to mind my own business and stay on the path. Like Tyler Childers says, ‘I focus on my breathin’ and the universal sound.’”

He found his place long ago, though, in part through the success of songs like “The Road Goes on Forever” and the top-10 album “Gravitational Forces.” If there’s comfort in the writing, there’s also joy in the steady touring.

“The key is the audience,” he wrote. “We have fantastic audiences. A friend put me on the phone with a woman just this evening. She had never heard of us, was mad at her husband for dragging her to the show, and then told me that it was the best show she’d ever seen. She was so happy to talk about her discovery. Delightful discovery is better than free whiskey. Apparently, she tore up the divorce papers and Fang (apologies to Phyllis Diller) moved back into the bedroom. I saved this guy’s marriage. Touring is full of magical power.”

Whether his music is saving a marriage or hushing a barroom, Keen isn’t running out of power, and this year he’ll record his next album.

“I have what I refer to as a ‘vague concept’ when I start thinking about a record,” he explained. “The vague concept for the next record is all about simplicity, ensemble instrumentation, and thud percussion — like one might feel in the bottom of one’s feet when a tank rolls by. Sounds like a lot of BS, right? It’s not. That’s what I have in mind. Lyrically, I want to be as strong and clear as Hank Williams or a Bible verse.”

He has clarity in his approach to the studio, as well, adding, “I want to have some signs that we’re doing this record at the right time and place. I want to see everybody loose and happy.”

He’s recently made performances of a few new songs available, including a song called “The Unknown Fighter,” an underdog story based on a boxer he knows.

“In some ways, boxing is as good a metaphor for personal triumph as you can find. I think most people understand that,” Keen wrote. “I’m a champion of the underdog and even now believe that the most washed-up character can rally and find strength and confidence, given the right circumstances. We are creatures of our environment, and sometimes that holds us back and keeps us down. Like the first two verses of the song describe. If one can shed that stigma, one can accomplish anything. Idealistic? Sure. Naive? Absolutely, but I have nothing to lose by believing in the strength and integrity of the human spirit.”

Keen’s belief in the human spirit includes an awareness of the communities that can make triumph possible, from his parents buying him his first guitar to the number of people who supported him when he needed it.

“All of my success would not have occurred had it not been for my wife, Kathleen,” he concluded. “She has believed in me and been my champion from the moment we met. My daughters are right with her. It’s these people that make my life good. I’m extremely lucky in this way.”

His sharp mind (he can name all the presidents’ birthdays) and detailed songcraft have paid off, too.

“I co-write more than before,” he wrote about his changing approach to songwriting. “I like it more than I did when I started. I edit more and think that editing is the key to making a good song great.”

He’s also allowed himself some freedom, adding, “In some odd way, I write more ridiculous songs than when I started. I’ve always written ridiculous songs, but one would think one would grow out of that. I’ve grown into it. However, you’ll never know, because I don’t play those songs for anyone.”

Ridiculous or not, Keen has reached a point where he can reflect on those years of work.

“If you have a creative gift you should cherish it, protect it and use it to the fullest,” Keen said. “I wish I hadn’t wasted time wondering about the state of the world and how to negotiate my way. If I could go back, I’d spend every day in my scriptorium reading books and writing songs.”

“Of course,” he added, “there would be the white bread deer sausage sandwiches and some beer in the deal.”