Robert Earl Keen is never short on having a good story to tell, but for his latest project the gregarious Texas Country singer-songwriter is letting others do the talking. Well, mostly. On Americana Podcast: The 51st State, Keen gets behind the mic to host a new interview series with some of his fellow artists from the all-encompassing genre.
The podcast has been a labor of love between Keen and his daughter-manager Clara, and as the subtitle suggests, their hope is to expand the footprint of Americana. First up: two episodes with Jamestown Revival and Lucero, premiering today.
We talked to Keen, known for story-songs like “Corpus Christi Bay” and “The Road Goes on Forever,” about why he’s getting in the podcast game.
Why a podcast?
I strive to stay in the music periphery and hang in there with [what’s going on]. As a touring band, you can really become isolated. It’s the same direction I was taking when I decided to do the Stryker Brothers record [2018’s Burn Band with Randy Rogers]. It was something else, something that seemed fun, something that might actually help some people and give some people some information they don’t know.
A way to keep yourself fresh and in the loop, and get you out of your comfort zone?
Absolutely. You can get out in your own solar system, spin out into the universe and never return. I’m always trying rope myself back in. I can feel it when it’s happening. Making records is one thing, but I’ve made a lot of records. There are so many other avenues in the music business to explore in a creative way. I thought this would really, really be good as one of those trying-to-give-back kinda things.
Do you listen to podcasts often?
I’m not a podcast listener. I’ve listened to snippets and things like that. It’s a 50-minute format with interviews and songs. We have a thing called “Will’s Picks” where a friend of mine picks a song and we talk about that for a few minutes. But it’s mainly about interviewing the artists.
How have you found your storytelling skills translate to doing interviews?
I can blather on forever and sometimes lack intellectual curiosity about other people. It’s really forced me to think, “What is this person thinking? What do they really want to tell me here? How do I get at that?” It’s just a whole new world. The interview process is very different to standing up and giving a sermon. [You have] to let people speak, let them tell their own story without interrupting them — which I kinda did a little bit at first.
Have you learned things about own your creative process by asking about theirs?
Every one of them had something really eye-opening [to say]. It does go by quickly so I don’t always catch it, but I catch it when we edit and listen back to it. A good example for me is [singer-songwriter and Blaze actor] Ben Dickey. He’s just a true philosopher and had these great, huge, open-ended cosmic discussions about how things work. It was like, “Boy, how did I stumble into that?”
You were one of the first artists to be labeled “Americana.” Why did you pick that to be the theme here?
A few years ago I just went ahead and embraced the Americana label. I believe in it, I believe there should be more talk about it. It’s really funny: I don’t think out of the six episodes we have in the can that any of [my guests] said, “Yes, I’m Americana.” They all had different answers and they were all funny and interesting.
How have you gone about choosing people you have on the show?
The thing I always demand is that the artist has some real experience. Whether they have a lot of records or not, that doesn’t matter, but if they have touring experience or a lot of experience playing and singing and being a part of the Americana world, then I want to talk to them. I’m thinking in the long term that we won’t only talk to Americana artists. We might talk to a writer or somebody who’s been playing it, like say [Texas radio host] Mattson Rainer from KNBT over in New Braunfels. The idea is to get knowledgeable people.
What kind of educating are you trying to do with this series?
A lot of people have seen me over the years and go, “I don’t know what you are, but I like it.” I think a lot of people out there really just aren’t hip to [Americana] at all, they don’t know what it is. The more we talk about, define and expand it, the more people will get onboard with it, the stronger it becomes.
PHOTO: RICK DIAMOND