Of course, Keen was a pup himself once, with heroes of his own to study. And at 55, he’s still a pup (if only in human years) next to likes of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. But like most of those guys, Keen’s breakout was more akin to a slow-cooked pot roast than a microwave burrito, slow simmered over a decade of playing to attentive but intimate crowds at Texas folk dens and restaurants, out-of-state gigs of the more-miles-than-money variety, and even a frustrating but not-completely-fruitless two-year stint in Nashville. Moreover, his credentials as a legitimate songwriter’s songwriter were in place well before hoards of ball-cap wearing frat kids were whooping it up at his sold-out dancehall gigs in the ‘90s. Keen released his first three records and landed cuts on two major-label country albums (the self-titled debut by his old Texas A&M chum Lyle Lovett, and Lone Star State of Mind by early supporter Nanci Griffith) while Ronald Reagan was still in office, and held his own as part of a package tour with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. He also made a hell of a first impression on Lubbock legend Joe Ely.“We were on the East Coast somewhere, doing one of those song-swap things with John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and myself, and Robert Earl came out to the show and Lyle invited him up to sit in for a song or two with us,” recalls Ely, pegging the date around ’90 or ’91. “I had never met him before, but he played ‘The Road Goes on Forever,’ and as soon as he finished it, I said, ‘I’m recording that. I don’t care what you say.’ Then he played me another one, ‘Whenever Kindness Fails,’ and I said, ‘I’ve got to do that one, too!’”
Sure enough, Ely included both songs on his ’92 album Love and Danger — and he’s since rocked “The Road” enough times at his own shows to practically merit joint custody of the anthem. “‘The Road Goes on Forever’ was like a baseball bat hitting me on the side of the head, because I know those people in that song,” he says. “And just like Butch Hancock’s ‘Boxcars,’ it’s been a staple in my set ever since. When you can end every verse of a song with a line like that, there’s just no two ways about it — it’s a great live song.”
Surveying Keen’s entire catalog, one could argue that “The Road Goes on Forever” isn’t even his best song, let alone even his best song on that Ely album. But its impact on both his own career and the booming Texas music scene he unwittingly trail-blazed is indisputable. From its humble debut on his second studio album, 1988’s West Textures, the rousing tale of doomed (one of ’em, at least) lovers Sherry and Sonny not only put Keen on the map, it became a classic in its own time — standing as quite possibly the best-known anthem in Texas music since Jerry Jeff Walker introduced both Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother)” on his 1973 gonzo cowboy landmark, ¡Viva Terlingua! (“The Road Goes on Forever” is now such a veritable standard in the genre, maybe Okie Toby Keith just figured it was already public domain when he brazenly swiped virtually everything but the character names for his 2010 single, “Bullets in the Gun.”)
One larger-than-life, surefire-crowd-pleaser of a song, though, does not a career make — at least not a career quite like Keen’s. Nor, truth be told, does a heaping sackful of ’em, let alone reams of good press and glowing endorsements from established peers; that stuff alone might net any great or even decent songwriter a nice living playing to quiet, reverent theater and listening-room clientele; but it takes a little something more to fully engage an audience and give them a show — whether it’s in front of a festival crowd of thousands or a handful of folks in a burger joint. And Keen had that in his arsenal from the get-go. Tracie Ferguson, who booked Keen in the front room of Gruene Hall early on in his career, fondly recalls the uproariously entertaining stories he’d share with his intimate audiences to fill out his four-hour time slots in the mid-80s. “He was just one of these guys that you loved immediately, because you knew he had something,” says Ferguson. “It was real obvious that Robert had the songwriting skills and the determination to make things work for him, because you could see it in his eyes.”
Ferguson actually traces her first Keen experience all the way back to ’81 or ’82, when he and Lovett, both still at A&M at the time, would visit San Marcos to play at a restaurant called Grin’s. Keen had more confidence than songs then, but he had plenty of the later by the time he started playing Gruene, ranging from enduring gems like “The Front Porch Song” and the title track to his 1984 debut, No Kinda Dancer, to a number called “Yankee Ingenuity” that never made it to record but did make a strong first impression on his future wife.
“It was very clever, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way,” recalls Kathleen Keen, who had accompanied her friend Ferguson to see Robert Earl play a solo acoustic show at Emma Jo’s in Austin in 1984. Like many a Keen fan before and since, she was snared by a sarcastic ditty, but was quick to recognize that behind the humor beat the heart and mind of a true poet. They hit it off straight away, moving to Nashville together within the year and married upon their return to Texas in 1986. The story of their life together has been told in serial form through her husband’s songbook ever since, from the achingly sincere “I Would Change My Life” to the crises of faith recounted in “Then Came and Lo Mein” and “Not a Drop of Rain” to the soaring, optimistic “The Wild Ones.” “And you know, ‘Gringo Honeymoon,’ every single word of that song is true,” she insists. “It’s a complete piece of journalism, because it all happened exactly tha
t way. And to me that’s something special — to be able take something that’s basically your day, and turn it into a really beautiful song.”
“Gringo Honeymoon,” from the 1994 album of the same name, has long been one of the most beloved songs in Keen’s repertoire, every word committed to heart and commonly sung along to by fans in concert along with such other timeworn, top-shelf favorites as “Corpus Christi Bay,” “Merry Christmas from the Family,” “Dreadful Selfish Crime” and “Feelin’ Good Again.” All but that last one (which came later, on 1998’s Walkin’ Distance) were captured at their live best on the aforementioned No. 2 Live Dinner, recorded at a time when Keen was connecting with his audiences on a level that was an eye-opener even to Maines, a seasoned veteran (playing fiery pedal steel guitar) of such highly kinetic outfits as the Joe Ely Band, Lubbock’s Maines Brothers and Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzos.
“With Ely, it was always a little bit more of a rock ’n’ roll vibe, and Jerry Jeff was engaging but sort of had that surly thing going, which the crowd loved,” says Maines. “But I’ll never forget the first gig I did with Robert Earl. I was just blown away at how people were singing every lyric, man. When he’s doing a live show, it’s like the people out there are sort of his congregation, and he’s in charge, but he has that real engaging smile which keeps everything pretty friendly and makes people feel like they’re part of the family.
“He was also the first guy I ever worked with who would tell these great stories while playing rhythm and getting into the song, like a narrator,” Maines continues. “And he always keeps it light. Even when he does a heavy song, he’ll come back with a funny story, or tell one right before it.”
That element of humor is a big part of Keen’s stage act, but it’s not an act. While the literate, introspective and detail-rich lyrics that fill the lion’s share of his best songs — not to mention testimony by his wife, Maines and bandmates — all suggest a deeply contemplative man of keen intellect, by all accounts the guy genuinely is just flat-out funny. “Robert telling a joke is one of the great things in the world to me,” offers Bill Whitbeck, who’s played bass in Keen’s band for 16 years. “And he’s always got a story, and it’s unbelievable how they never run out. Things just happen around him. I mean, if I drive to San Antonio to buy a shirt and I come home, that’s it, that’s the whole story; but if Robert drives to San Antonio to buy a shirt, two or three really strange, funny things happen to him, just because of the way he looks at things. He’s a great observer, which of course relates to why he’s such a great songwriter.”
Ely still cracks up every time he recalls the day he and Keen went snorkeling together in the Cayman Islands, some 10 years or so ago when they were both booked on one of blues-rocker Delbert McClinton’s infamously fun “Sandy Beaches” music cruises. “We were swimming out to this little reef about a half-mile out into the ocean, and as we got about halfway there, all of a sudden I look up, and there’s a damn little water spout headed straight for us,” Ely says. “Robert Earl was still looking under water, so I kind of punched him in the shoulder and went, ‘Hey, check this out.’ And he looks up at the water spout, which looked just like a tornado on the water, and then looks over at me and goes, ‘You can’t go anywhere with you Lubbock guys.’”
A little before noon on a blazingly hot day in late July, a little over a month before the Aug. 30 release of his 15th album, the Maines-produced Ready for Confetti, Keen greets me out front of his house, a spacious and immaculate but cozy-feeling, ranch-style abode that sits on top of a hill overlooking a rolling golf course in Kerrville, Texas.
“I’m surprised you’re on time,” he offers drolly. “Most people are never on time to get to Kerrville …”
The Keens still keep a ranch about half an hour southwest in Laguna, with horses and Robert’s beloved “Scriptorium” — the rustic man-cave he holes up in to write — but the house in Kerrville has been the family’s home for the last six years. “So I’ve got a place to be all by myself if I want to, and I’ve got a place to go to a movie theater if I want,” Keen says. “That’s about all a person needs, I think.”
He leads the way into the dining room, lit by sliding glass patio doors leading out to the backyard and a view of what looks like half the Texas Hill Country, and nods toward a pitcher and glasses waiting on the table. “My sweet wife made us some tea,” he says, just as Kathleen enters and introduces herself, offering coffee, too. Keen follows her into the kitchen and sticks his head in the fridge.
“If you don’t mind, I’m gonna make myself a sandwich,” he says, coming out with a jar of mayo and a foil pouch of tuna-fish. “I’ll make you anything you want later, or whenever, but I’ve gotta have something.” He lays two slices of bread down on a spotless counter top, spoons a pile of tuna on one slice and a dollop of mayo on the other, slaps them together and has it about halfway eaten before finding a plate.
“Robert’s been on a health kick,” explains Kathleen, “which he comes to grudgingly —which is another way of saying, kicking and screaming. I’m trying to lead him, because the lifestyle on the bus is not health-oriented. The guys are brilliant, and they just levitate when they play, but personally, they’re not healthy. So I really want him to feel good before he goes out in August.”
“I don’t kick and scream,” her husband objects between bites — but when he later asks if I’m sure I wouldn’t like him to cook me up a hamburger, Kathleen teases that he just wants to watch somebody eat one. “He tried to get Clara to eat two of them the other night so he could watch her.”
Clara, 16, is the Keens’ oldest of two daughters; she’s introduced when she walks into to the kitchen, waiting for her mother so they can nip out for sushi. “Clara’s a David Bowie fan,” Robert offers in the stating-the-obvious manner of a father playfully trying to embarrass a teenager (her T-shirt sports an almost life-sized bust of painted-faced Bowie from his Aladdin Sane era). Clara’s younger sister, Chloe, is away at camp. “She’s 11, and she’s in touch with her inner 60-year-old,” says Kathleen. “She’s part of a bowling league, and she’s the only one in the family that golfs. This is a family of rugged individualists. It’s funny to watch the negotiations that take place in a family full of smart-alecks.”
After a few more minutes of light family banter, and an introduction to Chloe’s “totally neaurotic,” pint-sized, Gremlin-looking dog, Annie, Robert takes his sandwich back to the table with the tea set. Before leaving with Clara, Kathleen catches him looking furtively behind a picture on a shelf. “What are you looking for?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Keen says, not a little guiltily.
“What? Your cigarettes?”
“No,” he says, still looking. Then, finally, “There was a Coke can …”
“Your spit can,” she says. “I wonder what happened to that …”
“You threw it away? Ah, what’s wrong with keeping a couple of spit cups around the house? If the dog can sh …”
He chuckles, she sighs. On their way out, his daughter tells him she loves him from the other room. “I love you too, sweetheart,” Keen answers cheerfully, then waits for the sound of the front door closing before pulling out his can of Copenhagen.
In the bio Lost Highway Records sent out with your new record, you’re quoted saying that you think the songs on Ready for Confetti are some of the most conventional sounding songs that you’ve written in a long time. That really surprised me, because the title track is all about not being conventional, and the record as a whole, like pretty much everything you’ve put out since Farm Fresh Onions in 2003, is very freewheeling and eclectic. You’ve never really played to the mainstream, but your music from this last decade in particular has just seemed a little extra carefree. Do you feel that way?
Oh, definitely. As far as the music goes, I don’t feel like I have any need to do anything other than what I feel like I want to do. For instance, I think this is funny, but there’s no cymbals on this record. I called Lloyd and said, “You know what? I’m kind of tired with messing with cymbals. Can we have no cymbals?” So he sent the whole band this email with big black bold letters, “NO CYMBALS.” And we were all kind of laughing about it, but Tom [Van Schaik], who’s a great drummer, still showed up at the studio with his cymbals going, “I wasn’t sure if you were joking or not.” And I’m like, “I’m not joking — there’s no cymbals!” And there was no other reason other than I was just tired of that kind of shimmery thing. And consequently, I think it sounds a lot earthier without them — it sort of locks in there.
So that was fun. But as far as the songs being more “conventional” goes, it’s not like I’m out to make a hit song. I just kind of get these ideas about how the record should sound and how weird it should be lyrically, and then I just go with it. And with this one, I thought, lyrically, I’m going to tone it down; I’m not going to go way out there, with things like “A Border Trilogy” [from 2005‘s What I Really Mean] or even “Farm Fresh Onions.” I’m going to leave that shit alone, and I’m going to just write some songs that you can pick up on pretty easily, where there’s not any hidden agenda.
Lloyd Maines said that when he first met with you to talk about this record, you already had an almost cinematic vision for how you heard every song in your head. Is that usually the case?
I do write in a very visual manner. I’m really visual within the thought of how the song’s gonna go, and once we get it down to where we have some basic tracks going, at that point it just totally opens up for me. It’s like framing a house, and all of a sudden you can see the trim color and the kind of roof and flooring you’re going to use, and then it’s just a matter of how to substitute those colors and shadows with different sounds and instruments. I think of the songs like paintings or little four-minute movies. And what occurred to me at one point is, songs that I wrote 20, 30 years ago, I still have that same movie going on my head when I’m up there singing them.
Speaking of seeing songs in your head before recording them, 10 years ago, right after Gravitational Forces came out, you told an interviewer that your next record was most likely going to be “very acoustic and wooden.” And then, of course …
[Laughs] Right! Farm Fresh Onions!
… you made the most electric guitar-driven record of your career. Whenever you say things like, “My next record is going to be like this,” that far in advance, do you ever follow through on it?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I ever have stuck to a plan like that. I like plans, but on records? I usually just have what I call a “vague concept,” and it has to do more with the feeling of the record. Like the feeling on Confetti was meant to be pretty straight-forward lyrically, and also somewhat more melodic. I really made an effort to be more melodic on this record, whereas some of them, like Farm Fresh Onions …
I love that record. But it was not exactly the most warmly embraced album of your career by fans.
Definitely not! But I had a great time making Farm Fresh Onions. It was really fun because I had left Lost Highway at the time, and I didn’t have that new deal with Koch yet; I didn’t have anything, and I didn’t give a fuck. I really didn’t. The idea was, “Let’s just go do some shit in the studio.” Rich [Brotherton] produced it, and we had so much fun that I think I kind of lost track, because at one point when the record came out, I had a bunch of people yelling that they couldn’t hear the lyrics. And I was like, “That’s the point!” I didn’t care. I wanted a lot of loud guitar sounds, and I thought it was cool. But I was a bit disappointed that everybody wasn’t following me into the forest there, you know? [Laughs]
Well what’s funny about it is, even though there is bit more of a garageband kind of rock edge to the album, especially on the title track, it’s mostly just a bunch of straight-up, really good Robert Earl Keen songs. It’s almost as if you don’t have to go way into the forest — you just have to barely poke your head in there and a lot of people are gonna freak out and go, “What are you doing?!”
I know! None of this stuff that I’ve done is like world-breaking — it’s only kind of weird within whatever road I’m going down. There’s just a real conservative thing going on with music. Even with kids. Like Clara there, she can give you the whole discography on David Bowie, and she’ll tell you, you know, where he got off track and all that. Which, I’m not sure he was ever on track! [Laughs] I thought he was always all over the map. But it really does shock the crap out of some people when you do stuff just a little differently. With Farm Fresh Onions, we basically just turned up some electric guitars louder.
That’s what Dylan said! But speaking of scaring people off — I recently asked another writer if he had listened to Ready for Confetti yet, and he said, “No, but I hear Keen got all Caribbean-ed out!” And I mean, I do think it’s a pretty friendly, feel-good kind of record, but I don’t really hear that.
[Laughs] Yeah, right — me and the Jamaicans and Kenny Chesney or something. Timbales! Actually, there is a timbale on the song “Ready for Confetti,” but … yeah, I don’t know. Jeez, that’s funny.
Let’s talk about that song, though, because I think it does capture the spirit of the record. Was that the launching point for the rest of the project?
For this record, for sure. Definitely. When I wrote that song, I went, “This is a song I want people to hear, and this is what I want it to sound like.” I wanted it to be something really light-hearted and open.
And the characters in that song?
All real people. The lady in it, we haven’t seen her in about three months, but she used to stand right down at the corner by the bridge near here. She’d stand there, just dancing like crazy, just like in the song. There’s not a lot of speculation as far as what’s going on with her, other than maybe being kind of crazy, but that’s just her thing. So I started with her. And then the psychic in the song is a real guy that I knew both here in Texas and in Nashville, and he pretty much said all those things, about being abducted and stuff. And then the other part is just kind of my own wrap-up. Most of my stuff comes from some point of realism, and then I sort of mess with it.
The psychic guy, though, he also had a really funny thing about songwriting. He wrote songs himself, and one time he took some songs to a Nashville publisher and said, “These songs are hit songs.” And the publisher said, “I don’t really hear it.” He said, “Are you a psychic?” The publisher went, “No, I’m not a psychic. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And the guy goes, “Well, I am a psychic, and I’m telling you, these three songs are hit songs!” I thought, that’s as good a pitch as I’ve ever heard! [Laughs]
Along with the title track, the other song here that really grabbed me right off the bat was “The Road Goes On and On.” I said it’s a friendly record, but the gloves really come off in that song. And of course, just knowing your history and kind of the lay of the Texas music scene, my first interpretation was, “Oh, that’s gotta be about one of those guys,” — you know, Pat Green, Jack Ingram ...
But I asked Lloyd about it, and he said, “I’m going to leave it to Robert to answer that one, but you might want to look just a little bit more north …” And then I was pretty sure I had it figured out.
Is it worth even asking, to have it on record?
It’s whatever you want to make it, Richard! Really. I mean, what I did was, I just felt like this … these people … kind of had been picking on me for a long time. And I’d had enough of it. And my choices were, you know, I could make some big deal, call them up, go get a lawyer and file a lawsuit, which a lot of people said I should do. But I just don’t like lawsuits. My mom was an attorney, and I think they just spend up and waste your life, really. So I decided my best option was to do what I do best, which was to answer the challenge, as far as I’m concerned.
Somebody steps all over you, you answer them back. So that’s what I did.
Stepping all over you in terms of ...
In terms of copyright and plagiarism, basically.
And therein lies the answer I was looking for.
Yeah. Anyways, there’s a lot of stuff about it on the Internet, and I did get a lot of emails from people saying, “Why don’t you do something about it?” Well, now I really have done something about it.
You put some bullets in your own gun and fired back.
Well, and also in my own rationalization of it, in the world of literature and in some ways in country music, it’s a very legitimate way to fire back, as you say. You write them a song and say, “This is what’s going on, and this is my side of the story.” And I didn’t want to pull any punches, but I also I didn’t want to make it real obvious and stupid. And it really leads up to the very last line, where it says, “Real cowboys say ‘the party never ends,’” which is basically saying, “Who is the real cowboy here?” That was the whole point of the entire song.
So having made clear that “The Road Goes On and On” is not about any competitor on the Texas music scene … let’s talk about that Texas music scene. I’ve covered it long enough and interviewed enough of those guys that came along after you to know that, however much they might have tipped their hats to you and claimed you as an influence, you weren’t always that crazy about being lumped in with them. Have your thoughts on the matter changed over the years?
I never really had a good grip on it. I know that there are some people that have seriously been sparked to start out in music because they’ve come to a show and there’s tons of people there, and they think, “This guy’s doing something that I can relate to.” So you know, I think I’ve been out there enough to where I’ve definitely inspired people that way, and I’m glad because I do think a bunch of them are really talented. But when they use me as a point of reference musically, I guess I feel like maybe I’m somewhat responsible for them, and I don’t want to feel that way. I want them to do their thing and me to do my thing.
And there is this other factor, which is, I’ve worked real hard at being a touring band, and playing not just in Texas, but everywhere. I have people all the time come up to me and say, “Do you ever play outside of Texas?” And I think, “I’ve been playing outside of Texas since 1981.” You know, for 30 years I’ve been playing outside of Texas. From the beginning, I wasn’t wanting to stay at the Cactus Cafe, I wasn’t wanting to stay at Floore’s Country Store. I enjoy those places, they all worked for me, and it worked for a lot of clubs, too, because all of a sudden they had tons of people in there, and they weren’t paying somebody from Nashville $30,000 to get them in there; they were paying me an adequate amount of money as far as I was concerned, but they were selling a lot of beer and everybody was happy. So it was working in every way. But I still always thought of myself as more than just a Texas artist. So when it became a Texas scene, I would feel like, “Man, I don’t want to be the Texas flag waver.” I love Texas, but the landscapes of my songs already tell that story. I just never wanted to be a spokesperson for it. I wanted to be a musician who’s out there in the world playing music, and singing songs that work.
But for a while, you did have your own traveling festival, Robert Earl Keen’s Texas Uprising. How did that fit into your mindset at the time, and how long did it last?
We did that for four years I guess. I forget. But we did something like 30 or 40 shows, and had 150 different artists over that period. But the thing about the Texas Uprising was, at first we had like Joe Ely and Steve Earle, but we also had Storyville and Los Lobos. My idea was, bring some of these guys to us. And then the Texas scene started really congealing, and some of these radio stations started taking over some of these deals, so they were saying, “Oh no, it has to be all Texas.” And that’s when I started fighting some of these things, going, “No, no, I want people to hear other music that I hear and like, like Richard Thompson and my friend Greg Brown.” And they’d go, “Well, we can put them on at 11:30 a.m.” I’d be, “Do you know who we’re talking about here? They don’t come at at 11:30 in the morning, they come on at 9 o’clock at night!” So we’d have that argument, because it involved my money and their money, but I was losing my grip. In the end, it became just an all-Texas show with all Texas bands. Musically it lost the vision I had for it, so I stepped out of it. It just didn’t work out exactly the way I wanted it to.
Was there any reluctance on your part to take part in that tribute they did for you at the Steamboat MusicFest a couple of years ago, the one recorded for the Undone album?
No, I thought that was nice. And I like everybody that’s included in that — the Cross Canadian guys, the Reckless Kelly guys, the Randy Rogers guys — I love all those guys. And I like a lot of their music. All that stuff is cool. There was just, you know, some other stuff [from that scene] that wasn’t quite as cool. In that world, sometimes I liked the stuff that was further away from me than close to me. I wasn’t looking for somebody that was playing stuff just like me, I wanted to hear something else.
Do you listen to a lot of music these days?
Now? Not as much as I used to. I still love music, and when I get a chance in my car, or when I go out and write and stuff, I’ll listen to music. But I certainly don’t listen to it with the same rabid passion that I used to have for it. There’s just a lot of other things going on in my life. But when I do listen, I tend to fall back on old favorites: Todd Snider or Greg Brown, or Townes and Guy, that kind of thing. Or I’ll always have a Lightnin’ Hopkins CD in the car, or some kind of bluegrass, like Ricky Skaggs, because I love that stuff — it’ll always make you feel good. But as far as breaking out and hearing new stuff, I’m not real great at that. It’s always weird I think that people ask musicians, “Who do you like these days,” because sometimes musicians are just the most conservative people in the world when it comes to new music and what’s going on. They just like what they like, they’re not out there on the forefront of what’s happening, and I’m definitely not out there at the forefront of what’s happening.
So I take it you haven’t gone download crazy.
No. As a matter of fact, I have trouble downloading for some reason.
They make it real easy!
I know they do, but man, it just keeps disappearing, and I have to get my girls to help me make sure that I can transfer it from my computer to my iPod or whatever. So I’m kind of getting there, but even that being said, the last thing I downloaded was some Jackson Browne record from 1978. I’m not cutting edge, never have been. I don’t think.
Let’s go all the way back to your music roots then, when you were rabid about it. Your parents weren’t really musical at all, were they?
No. My mom was an attorney and my dad was a geologist. I grew up in Sharpstown [a suburb of Houston]. My big joke there is, I grew up in a bank-scandal left in the crack war, because you tell people you grew up in Sharpstown now, and they go, “Oh my God!” But it was just sort of a regular middle-class upbringing back then. I went to public school and was a mediocre student at best, but did really well on writing sort of things. And I was pretty good at math, too, but I just never could get it together on the studying part.
As for music, Cream was my favorite band. When everybody loved the Beatles, I loved Cream. And when I was 12 years old, in 1968, I went to a Cream concert at the Coliseum in Houston. But I was also sort of surrounded by country music, because my older brother, who’s about nine years older than me, was a real Hank Williams and Buck Owens fan. So I got a pretty good dose of that, and by the time I was 14 or 15, I started listening to country music almost exclusively. And my friend Bryan Duckworth took it even further back and we got into Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers; I used to have an 8-track of Jimmie Rogers that I’d play incessantly. And then by the time I was 18, I was pretty up on all the Willie lore. Instead of going to my senior prom, I went to a Willie Nelson concert at the Half Dollar Club in Houston.
What was your first exposure to the songwriter scene at the time?
Well that’s a little bit on the other side. My sister was a couple years younger than I was, and she was like the world-champion foosball player of downtown Houston. She was really sharp and could get into any place, she had fake IDs and the whole deal, and she was famous. I mean, really famous. I could walk into any of those bars and go, “I’m Kathy’s brother,” and they’d go, “Oh man, she’s badass!” So she’d be there, 15 years old with a Benson & Hedges cigarette in her mouth, hanging over a foosball table, killing these guys. And a lot of those places would have a couple of guys playing over in the corner, covering stuff like James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” and that was really where I sort of latched onto that whole vibe of how cool it was to sit there and play guitars together with somebody else. And from that, I’d talk to other people and find out that Anderson Fair was a good place to go, and there was a place called Theodore’s, a place called Corky’s, a place called Houlihans. There was another one downtown where I not only saw the Talking Heads, but I also saw Willis Alan Ramsey. All that stuff was real healthy, and I became aware of that whole world just because my sister was the foosball champion.
And I assume you got your first guitar right around then.
Yeah. It was my sister’s old guitar. It was just sitting in the closet. Every once in a while, she had a few pals that could play a little bit, and I’d sit and listen to them, learn a chord or two. And then after I graduated but before I started at A&M, I spent that whole summer in East Texas working in the oil field, and I took that guitar with me and a book, The 10 Greatest Country Songs. And I just sat around learning them — it had like a couple of Willie songs and some Hank Williams songs. The only one I didn’t learn was “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” by Donna Fargo, which didn’t seem to fit me very well in the first place.
I’m sure most people familiar with you have heard the stories about your A&M days, picking with Lyle Lovett on that now famous front porch at the house you rented. But you also played in a little bluegrass band around the time. How did you get into that?
I think a lot of things sort of collided at the same time. I was mainly kind of a country guy, but then some of my friends were playing fiddles and mandolins and things like that, and they would play sort of a mix between some Bob Wills tunes, like “Ida Red” or “Big Balls in Cowtown,” and Bill Monroe stuff like “Big Mon” or “Wheel Hoss. So you’d get this cross mix, which was especially odd for Texas, but it just happened to be the people I’d run into. And then that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, came out, and everybody that kind of liked that kind of music all started getting in on it. We met a lot more people that were trying to play the banjo, or flat-picking guitar … I just loved the whole flat-picking guitar thing. I tell you, man, when I first picked up a Kentucky Colonels record and heard Clarence White play guitar like that? Jesus Christ! It was like you just never heard anything like that before. And I still love it. I never was any good at it myself, but I still have a secret dream that I’ll wake up one morning, and all of a sudden I’ll be able to play like that. But it just never happens! It’s one of these delusions, but I never did quit thinking that it’s going to happen.
Do you remember the first song you wrote that you were really proud of it?
Yeah, I had a few songs. I couldn’t tell you the titles. I wrote a song about working in the oil field that was sort of like a Jimmy Buffet sounding song, it sort of had that mid-lope sort of sound, had a beginning, middle and an end. I couldn’t sing it for you or give you the whole scoop on it, but I think that was one of the first songs I ever wrote. And after that there were just little ditties about my car, or some old, you know, some dog that I liked. I remember a title I wrote a long time ago called “Me Alone and Blue,” and it was actually about a dog. There was supposed to be some sort of play on the word “blue.” It was really lousy. But anyway, that was the kind of stuff that I wrote. But that came pretty easily, in that I always felt like I had that gift as far as rhyming poetry. I had done that all my life. From the time I was really small. Once I learned a few chords, I just thought, “Wow, this is what I should do, is write these songs.”
After college you moved to Austin and started playing around there, and earlier you said you were already starting to gig out of state as early as 1981. I talked to Tracie Ferguson, who started seeing you play around that time, and she said you always had a definite confidence onstage. Did performing come as naturally to you as writing?
The first time I stepped up onstage by myself, I just went, “Oh man, this is it!” It was this incredibly liberating experience for me. I was always somewhat shy and had a hard time finding my way into a conversation. But when you’re onstage, it’s your forum, you know? So I’d get onstage and I just started talking. I had a handful of songs, and I could fill in all that space between the songs with stories and stuff, and I just never had a problem with that. As a matter of fact, I was totally over confident. [Laughs] I mean, there were times where I was like, “I can do that, why can’t I go be on television or go play the Astrodome?” I was totally confident, and I didn’t have nearly the skill to do some of the things that I thought I could do. But it never stopped me from stepping up onstage if somebody gave me that opportunity, because I always felt like I could get up there and make something happen.
Were you just as sure about your singing voice?
Well, I thought I was pretty damn good until I heard it on tape! And then I thought, “Oh my god, I need to do something about it.” But it wasn’t anything that I thought I could do anything about. I guess I could have; I’ve read since that a lot of people who were great singers took a lot of time and made a lot of effort in making their voices better, but I just kind of felt that I had what I had. And I wasn’t unhappy with it, or else I would have quit singing a long time ago; but I realized I wasn’t the kind of singer that a lot of other people were or a lot of other people kind of expected you to be if you were sitting there playing a guitar. I’ve always been able to hit the notes pretty well, it was just sort of the quality of the notes, you know? But I’m honest about it; it’s exactly how i sound, it’s exactly how I feel, and I don’t feel like changing it, because my voice certainly fits a lot of the songs that I sing.
I’ve always loved your first album, No Kinda Dancer. It came out in 1984, but I think every song holds up and it doesn’t sound dated at all. But what really surprises me is the fact that you produced it. Did you have a clue as to what you were doing?
Lyle gave me a book called Making Your Own Record, and I used that. It had everything from finding out how to get some money to make your record to how to go through the process of getting a record mastered and printed. This was back in the LP days, when it was a little more of a process. So I used that to some degree, and then I just got some people that I already knew to play on it. The core little group was Mike Landschoot and Paul Sweeney from Austin, who I played stuff with, and then we found a bass player and a drummer and the rest we just filled in with some of my friends, like Denise Franke and Nanci Griffith and Lyle. The biggest trick of the whole record was finding the guys who played the horns on the song “No Kinda Dancer.” But I happened to know a trombone player, and he knew some guys at the University of Texas that played tuba and whatever else is on there. And as horn players do, they just figured out their own parts.
It’s since been reissued on other labels, but didn’t you initially self-release No Kinda Dancer?
No, I leased that to Rounder Records. They had an imprint, Philo, and they put out that record and then they wanted to do another one, but backed out. By then I already had it all set up to make The Live Album at Sons of Hermann Hall, so I went ahead and made it and then borrowed money to pay off the recording truck and the musicians. So I was stuck with that record and had no idea what to do with it, until Barry Poss, who owned Sugar Hill, said he’d take it. I didn’t get all of the money that I needed to pay it off, but I couldn’t have been happier, because I liked Sugar Hill as a label in the first place.
The Live Album came out in 1988. By then you had already met and married Kathleen, and tried to make a go at things in Nashville. How long were you there?
I was there from ’85 to ’87, exactly 22 months. And then I left. Well, shit, they broke into my house, stole all my stuff, and I’d hocked all the things that were worth any money at all. I was totally broke and didn’t have any opportunities or anything looking at me at all. I told Kathleen, “Let’s just move back and see what we can do, because this is not working.” And that was that. I definitely had a hard time in Nashville, there’s no doubt about it. But I would like to clear the record: I have never been a Nashville basher. I just feel like some of my experiences were somewhat unlucky. It wasn’t exactly happening for me there. What set me back was, before I went there, I’d been playing my own shows, and people were paying to see me. And then the first thing I found out when I got to Nashville was, I had to go audition to play three songs at songwriter night at the Bluebird Cafe. For free. And I was just totally indignant about it, like, “Are you kidding me?” But I sucked it up and did my three songs for my audition, and they put me on some alternate list. That’s when I realized it truly was like starting over in a whole new country. It was totally foreign the way they did things there: how you never got paid, but you’re always supposed to be really grateful that you could even get on the friggin’ show and stuff like that. That to me was tougher than any of the stuff about making records or dealing with publishing companies or record companies. Because playing live was the one thing I knew I could do, because I’d already done it, and not just in Texas, but in other places around the country. But not there. All that said, though, I do recommend the fact that Nashville’s an industry town, and if you really want to know about the music business and figure out how things work and how you can make things work, it was a true education for me.
But when things got really frustrating at that time, did you ever think about quitting? Not Nashville, but music?
Yeah, I think so. When I first came back to this part of the country, when I was in Bandera, I certainly was thinking about doing something else. But I didn’t really open my mind to trying to figure out some other kind of career, because I just didn’t want to. This is the thing I wanted to do. And I guess I was stubborn enough to find out that it was worthwhile to stick with it, but it was certainly difficult when I got back.
However, when I got back I totally was unchained from the idea of writing a hit song, which also can weigh on your mind when you’re in Nashville. You want to write a hit song, you know, but I didn’t even know what a hit song was. As much music as I’d listened to in my life, I had no idea what a hit song was at all. I was like, “I dunno, this kinda sounds like a hit song,” but they have a real strict formula for a hit song. And I just didn’t have that feel for it. I still don’t, maybe.
It wasn’t too long after you came back that you made West Textures, which had “The Road Goes on Forever” on it. Did that feel like a hit song? Or did you at least have a feeling that it’d have legs?
Nope. I did not. I just knew that I had to go in there and talk [producer] Jim Rooney into letting us go ahead and keep the session, because he didn’t think that we had an anchor song for that record. And so I talked him into letting me finish one, and I went back and played that for him. And he went, “Yeah, that’s the song.” And I thought, “Thank God.” I was just relieved that we weren’t canceling the session. But when I started playing that song for people, off the work-tape that we had, they’d go, “That song, that’s a great, great song!” And I went, “OK, great. So the stock’s going up on this one.”
But then there are songs like “Over the Waterfall,” from Picnic, that I’ve held onto forever: I still think it works, still think it sounds good, still love the lyrics, still love the whole thing ... and nobody gives a shit. And I play it out of my own stubbornness, just to go: “I still like this song, I’m playing it, too bad!” Boom. And we play it, and nobody cares, and we go on. So some just don’t stick.
Was it right around the release of West Textures that you did that tour with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt?
It was after West Textures and before Bigger Piece of Sky. It was not just one tour, it was several. One of the things that came out of Nashville that was really good was I got hooked up with this booking agent, Keith Case. His people kind of put us together; I think they thought, give Guy and Townes more of a build-up as far as being onstage by having someone out there to get the crowd ready. Plus, in some ways I just kind of had it together; Townes couldn’t rent a car a lot of times for whatever reason, so I helped with the travel. Guy particularly seemed to like me; Townes was just aloof, you know — I hung out with him, but I never felt like we were really pals. But I certainly drove him around a lot. I used to have this long story that one thing I learned about Townes is that he could stay more still than anybody I’ve ever met. I mean, he could literally sit still in a car for three hours, and never move or talk. And sometimes I’d be driving along, and I’d imagine he’d say something, and I’d say, “What did you say?” And he wouldn’t say anything. He’d keep staring out the windshield, and I’d think, “I guess not,” and just drive on. But I also got to see Townes in the last great period when he was relatively sober and had it together, and I’m pretty sure I’m one of the few people that was around that saw as many good shows as I did with both of those guys. It’s hard to explain to people how great one person with a guitar can be, because you just don’t see it as much anymore. But it can be its own art form.
Back in Texas, though, it was your own full-band shows that were about to really take off. Did that happen gradually enough to where you could see it growing step by step, or did it just sort of blow up?
No, there was a definite “ah hah” kind of moment. One of the people at Keith Case’s office, Denise Stiff, who went on to become a really great manager in the industry, came up with this idea for me to do a “World Tour of San Antonio.” There was a guy named Steve Coffman at a radio station there called KRIO, and he just played what he wanted to play and he’d been playing my stuff a lot, back to back with like, Sheryl Crow. So Denise put together five shows around San Antonio in five days, at places like Gruene Hall and Leon Springs Dancehall and Floore’s Country Store. And the first one was at this restaurant called El Patio, which wasn’t even a venue, but we had a sound system set up. And I was late for the gig, because I had to fly in from somewhere, and I got there and saw like, 1,500-2,000 people standing around. I asked someone, “What’s going on?” “Oh, this guy Robert Earl Keen is playing here — they play him on the radio all the time, he’s great.” And I’m thinking, “Wow, this is unbelievable,” but also, “Oh no, I gotta play this gig by myself.” Because that night I was just playing solo. So I moved my way through the crowd, hooked up my guitar and looked out at all these people who I’m sure were expecting to see some country band that was going to sound just like the records they were playing on the radio. But it was just me. So, that was a shock, but from there shows would just fill up and sell out, and it was pretty exciting.
Were you aware that the kind of following you were getting in Texas at that time was sort of a new phenomenon? I mean, things were hopping in the ‘70s around Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker, and those guys were obviously still doing good business, but there really wasn’t a readymade, safety-net of an audience for the kind of thing you were doing in the early and mid-90s. Today, aspiring artists can look at a Randy Rogers Band crowd and think, “I want a piece of that,” and it’s kind of just a matter of following a template. But you were making it up as you went along.
Yeah. And I’m not even sure how it all worked, because there was not an infrastructure for what I was doing. Because I was playing the Cactus Cafe one time, and doing kind of a little folk thing, and then the next weekend I would be at Floore’s Country Store, and it’d be a total honky-tonk experience. And in one place I was getting radio play from KUT, and another place I was getting radio play from some kind of outlaw country radio thing that had only been in business for six months or so. But however they were hearing me, people were listening to me and coming out to these shows.
Were you ever taken aback at seeing, not just the bigger crowds, but how young they were? The crowds at Gruene and Floore’s had to look a lot different than your ones at the Cactus Cafe.
Yeah, it was a shock. I remember going and playing Rockefellers in Houston one time, and half the crowd was in high school. It was like, high school? I’m in my mid-30s or something, and these guys are in high school. But they were like, “Oh man, we love ‘Copenhagen,’ we love ‘Five Pound Bass,’” and they knew all the words to “Road Goes on Forever,” and there were all these people who’d show me their yearbooks where that was their senior song or whatever. So, I had … I reached a lot of people, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how that happened. Because they weren’t listening to the public radio station folk hours, I can guarantee you.
So, I was balancing both of them — playing this acoustic sort of folky thing here, and cranking it up over there. And at the same time I was always kind of building a band. I knew that if I wanted to hold onto any of these crowds, especially the ones where you had like 2,000 people, you weren’t going to be able to do it by yourself. You can do it if you’re John Prine and you’re sitting in the Majestic Theater, but you can’t do it at a honky-tonk. So I built up the band and held onto the band and worked it that way.
Would you like to be John Prine, sitting on a stool in the Majestic Theater?
I … you know, not now. I thought about that for a long time, I thought about holding onto that thing and seeing if maybe it would work, but … I really enjoy playing with a band. I really enjoy playing with the guys I play with, and I really think that’s been the key to any longevity that I’ve had. Otherwise I probably would have just faded away or I would have just been relegated to playing places like the Cactus Cafe or Anderson Fair or the Tin Angel in Philadelphia or Freight and Salvage in San Francisco. Because that’s really all that’s left out there in the solo songwriter field. It’s just not even the same world anymore.
Speaking of the guys you play with now, you’ve had Rich Brotherton (guitar) for 18 years and Bill Whitbeck (bass) for 16; how long have Tom Van Schaik (drums) and Marty Muse (pedal steel) been with you?
Tom for 12, and Marty for like almost 10 now. So we’ve been together for quite a while, and I have worked extremely hard at keeping this band together. I’ve been really adamant about having this band be the thing that you hear on record, and I’ve really made a huge effort business wise and in a personal sense to make sure that these guys got what they needed to keep playing, to keep doing this. And it makes a difference, because when you step up there for a sound check and it only takes you 30 minutes, and then you play for two solid hours and there’s not any huge mistakes, it’s because people are looking at a band that’s been working together for a long time and worked through a lot of problems to make that happen. People aren’t going to get some kind of half-assed show or sound, they’re going to get the full-on experience of at least 15 years of standing up onstage playing this music together. And that’s really not happening very much out there. But then all of a sudden, if you lose one guy, like when my friend Duckworth retired … I still have people coming up to me and saying, “Where’s Mr. Duckworth?” I go, “Mr. Duckworth left 10 years ago, my friend.” And they go, “Well man, I sure did like it when Duckworth was here.” I go, “Then that was about 10 years ago when you were here last time.” So you lose a band member, and people are squawking and crying, but when you’ve kept them together all this time, they’re like, “Well OK, this is how it’s supposed to be.” Well, it’s pretty difficult to keep it going how it’s supposed to be.
Your band’s stayed pretty consistent, but you’ve kind of been all over the place as far as record labels go since the mid-90s. After four albums on Sugar Hill, ending with No. 2 Live Dinner, you moved to Arista Austin for Picnic and Walking Distance, then to Lost Highway for Gravitational Forces. But then you kind of went independent again, leasing Farm Fresh Onions and What I Really Mean to Koch. It seemed like you were done messing with “major” labels, but with 2009’s The Rose Hotel and now Ready for Confetti, you’re back with Lost Highway.
Well, the reason I went back is I really like Luke Lewis, who runs Lost Highway. I felt like we always got along, and there was a certain connection between the two of us. But I just didn’t like what was going on with some of the other day-to-day people at the label the first time I was signed with them, because I felt like I was kind of getting thrown into the closet or under the bus as far as attention goes. I felt that it was a real crucial point in my career when I really needed people I was working with to see that I was still a viable artist, and I felt like they just weren’t giving me my due. And that all might have been a mistake on my part; I could have gritted my teeth and kind of muscled through that period of time and things might have changed, but I just felt this intense need be out of there.
[Laughs] This came before that, but one time with the Arista guys, right before a meeting about the next record we were going to make, I gave them a pop quiz, “What Do You Know About Robert Earl Keen?” There was like 12 people at this big old table, and I went, “Before we have a meeting, can we do this pop quiz?” It just had questions like, “What song is Robert Earl Keen most known for?” and, “What was the name of Robert Earl Keen’s last record?” Because you know, when you get in major label deals, you get in these big rooms and you feel like some of the people know what’s going on, but others don’t know anything. And I feel like education in knowing what you’re selling is imperative to making it work. But it really pissed them off. I had a guy stand up and say, “This is bullshit!” and walk right out of the meeting. And a couple of guys were laughing, going, “This is brilliant,” but they never answered one of the questions.
So anyway, back to Lost Highway … what happened was, I went into Luke’s office one day, and he said, “What’s on your mind?” And I sang “Please Release Me” to him. I sat there in front of him and went, [sings] “Please release me, let me go,” and he goes, “You’re shitting me.” And I went, “Cuz I don’t love you anymore …” He went, “Nobody wants to leave me! They always like me!” I went, “To live together is a sin …” He went, “You’re kidding, right?” And finally I said, “Nah, really, I think I’m just getting hammered here.” He went, “It’s up to you, man, but really, truly, nobody ever wants to leave Lost Highway.” But I told him I thought it was necessary, and he signed off on it.
After that I went and found this Koch deal, and that was one of the weirdest … I never could figure that one out, really. I made good records there, but that was just because they left me alone. But when that deal was over, I looked around and thought, you know, in this market with the downturn in CD sells and the upturn in Internet trading and all that stuff, one record company that’s still viable is Lost Highway. They’re still hammering away and you still see their name and their artists out there. And I figured Luke always liked me, so why not? So I called him up, and I made it easy for him; I wasn’t asking for a lot of stuff, I just wanted to be on the label. And he was like, “Yeah, sure. I like Robert. We’ll do this.”
That kind of reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza quits his job in a huff, then regrets it and tries to go back to work the next day and pretend like nothing happened.
Ha! Yeah, no kidding. I think I’ve had my George Costanza moments in my career for sure!
On that comedic note, one thing that came up in all my interviews with other people about you, especially with Bill and Rich, is your sense of humor, both onstage and off. And I’ve always liked how that element of your personality comes through in your songwriting. You’ve moved on from the more explicitly jokey type songs like “Copenhagen,” but there’s still traces of it even in some of your darkest songs, like “Whenever Kindness Fails.” Or my favorite song on Picnic, “Then Came Lo Mein,” which is about a serious mental breakdown, but there’s still an element of true-life humor there that’s undeniable.
Right. I like humor because it works so well onstage. It gives you kind of an idea of who you’re playing to. You step out there and you say something funny, and people laugh, and you go, OK, I know who I’m talking to here, and you can sort of move and groove with the vibe of the room there. You step out onstage and say something funny and nothing happens, you go, OK, I’m going to move this over to rock mode, or over to dance city, or something like that, and get these people going another way. It’s just something that I’m able to do, and I enjoy it, and I enjoy it in others. There are those that, you know, I really can almost fall asleep to because there’s just not enough comic relief. So I like to give a little comic relief myself.
Do you think humor in music is under appreciated?
Yeah, for sure. There’s something negative attached to it, but I can’t really tell what it is. It’s similar to the negative that’s attached to comedic actors, you know? Guys like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey struggle all their lives to be taken seriously, and still people probably come up to them and go, “Boy I loved it when you made your butt talk!” Jesus. They’ve gotta be running from that shit all the time.
I’ll give you one more thing to run from. When I was trying to get Rich to reveal a little more inside info on what makes you tick, he ratted you out as an incurable Big Red addict.
Oh, my God. It’s the worst, you know? I have my own commercial, I guess he told you about that, right?
Is that the one where they ask you, “Are you really having a Big Red for breakfast?” And you say ...
“Well yeah!” That’s the proper answer! I just thought, you know, in this world of really short commercials and short movies and short everything, that you need a really short commercial for Big Red, and that would be, “Well, yeah!” “You’re not having a Big Red with your Mexican meal, are you?” “Well, yeah!” “You’re not having a Big Red while you’re playing tennis, are you?” “Well yeah!” You can do it with anything.
Have you taken that to the Big Red folks?
No. As a matter of fact, I called the Big Red people years ago, and it’s all run by one Mexican lady who’s about 80 years old who could give a shit for anybody, right? And she’s just as mean as they possibly come. I just tried to explain to her that I would like a case of Big Red on the bus to take to some other states, and it would be important because I would introduce them to other people in the world that would like Big Red. And she just goes, “Is that all sir? Is that all that you’re trying to talk about?” I go, “Yeah! I’m trying to tell you something here!” And she goes, “If you’re not interested in buying Big Red, then I don’t need to talk to you.” Boom. That was it. So, I don’t think that’s going to work on her. But I still drink the stuff. And it’s horrible — it’s addicting. Especially in this heat, I have just found that the colder they are, like if you can get them right in that Slushie kind of world, you can just not stop. I just keep opening one after another.
My favorite picture of Doug Sahm is the cover of his The Return of Doug Saldana album, where he’s sitting on his front porch with a bottle of Big Red. That’s as Texas as it gets.
Well yeah! That says it all, right there.