It’s All About You: A Conversation with Robert Earl Keen
"I don’t live a tragic or squalid or scary or crazy life. I have a relatively normal existence. And I’m not consumed with the idea of fame. I am consumed with the idea of writing really good songs and making really good records."
Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen, among the best songwriters of his generation, has been doing this for a long time. Thousands of shows, hundreds of songs, a few dozen years into his career, Keen continues to play to packed houses of astoundingly diverse crowds night after night across the US of A. But, popular as he is, Keen has somehow managed to slip under the radar, remaining a fan’s musician, a songwriter’s songwriter; you might even say he had a cult following, if it didn’t sound so weird to say that about a guy as downright normal as Keen. Basically, Robert Earl Keen is a famous artist who has managed to attain the best of all possible worlds. Revered for his songs, respected by his peers, comfortable in his own shoes, supported by a broad audience, and yet free to shop for tomatoes without hiding under a hat and shades, Keen has it all sorted out. Cut through all that noise, and you can focus on what’s important.
And here, on his 16th studio release, Keen does little to disabuse his fans of their admiration for a guy whose road may just go on forever. Full of clever, biting lyrics, powerful storytelling, evocative imagery, and a caustic (but generally winking) wit, the goofily titled Ready for Confetti stands among the very best albums he has ever offered. Certainly this is the best collection of songs he has worked with in awhile. From stunning instant classics like “Black Baldy Stallion” and “I Gotta Go” to an inspired cover of Todd Snider’s “Train Song” and a gorgeous reading of the century-old gospel number “Soul of Man” (his favourite concert-closer for years, finally captured on record), Ready for Confetti feels at times like a trip through Keen’s playbook. Indeed, more than once a song will make an oblique (or overt) reference to another number in his oeuvre: “The Road Goes On and On”, a ferocious attack on a vacuous celebrity culture, plays off of Keen’s fan-favourite “The Road Goes on Forever”, while “Paint the Town Beige” is a re-imagined take on one of the album highlights from 1993’s A Bigger Piece of Sky.
By turns playful, angry, dreamy, spiritual, and wistful, the record is like some bravura demonstration of the possibilities open to songwriters willing to be open in return. Featuring songs in a range of stylistic traditions -- straight folk and country to reggae(ish) to rock to gospel -- the one thing this album isn’t is complacent. And, on top of it all, the playing from his longtime band is tight and assured, and the whole thing sounds terrific blasting out of your speakers. Much of this can be attributed to the top-shelf production from Lloyd [Country music legend and father of Dixie Chick Natalie] Maines, a longtime friend and collaborator, but it doesn’t hurt that Keen has clearly grown into a confident and passionate studio artist.
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This is your second studio record in a row with Lloyd Maines as producer. You guys seem to have found a real rhythm in the studio.
Well, he brings patience. And he has more communication ability than anything I’ve ever experienced in the studio. He’s also really good with ideas. He generally throws the questions about “what should we do here” out to me, or out to the band, and people throw in their two cents worth. However, if anybody just sorta runs out of ideas, he’s right there with an idea. He’ll go, well I think it oughta go like this. He’s never at a loss for ideas. And then as far as anything that I would like to try to work through, or any of us, Lloyd’s always willing to work as hard and as long as he needs to, to make it happen.
And he plays. He does a lot of sort of… augmentations. What he does is he plays some of the rhythm guitars and some of the… oh man… he plays banjo parts, and there’s some slide guitar things that he plays. There are bits and pieces all through there that Lloyd added to.
But, apart from Maines, is this the same band as you take with you on the road?
This is the road band. I’ve been playing and recording with the road band since about ’99. Well, since before I put out Walking Distance which was ’98 or ’99. They’ve been the primary band from that time on, for the last, I dunno, six or eight records. And then Rich [Brotherton], the guitar player, he produced two of my records so, y’know, we kind of stick in this whole tight-knit, little SWAT team guerrilla group that we got going.
This new record is perhaps the most complete and fully-realized album you have ever released. And then I read that you wrote all these songs on the road!
[Laughing] Yeah, I did. I only mentioned that because I had this long standing rule for myself that I’m just not even going to try to write out on the road. I’d made some real weak attempts years ago and didn’t feel like it was conducive to me getting anything good out. So, I made up this deal where I just didn’t do it. And this one, well I was looking at the calendar and all the dates we were doing. And since I wanted to follow up the last record in a timely manner, I said the only way I’m going to be able to do this is to write these songs on the road. So, I did.
And you didn’t find you had the same impediments you might have used to have had?
No, not really. You know, some of it was just flat out laziness. [Laughs.] But, it does get to be… there’s a certain amount of boredom that sets in with the whole road thing and it gets harder to settle down and think. It’s harder to really write a good lyric. But, I think that’s just a matter of concentration at this point, because I feel like I wrote some really good lyrics on this record.
You’ve become the heir apparent to the Texas troubadour thing. The lineage usually goes something like: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, you… What do you think about that?
Well, I certainly listened to those guys. A lot. I mean, in particular Guy and Townes. I went out on tour with them quite a bit in about 1989, 1990 or something like that. So, I’m sure that there’s a certain amount of influence they had on my writing. I mean, particularly Guy’s real talent for a certain kind of dialogue. It’s the way that he sees people. And in Townes, it’s that great use of poetry in his lyrics. I certainly borrowed stuff from them, as far as that goes. But, you know, my lyricism borrows from Cormac McCarthy as well as, you know, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s wherever the good lyric is, is what I’m interested in. […]
I’m thinking about the continuity between those guys, you, and the next generation of singer-songwriters. On Todd Snider’s last record he covered your “Corpus Christi Bay” just beautifully. And, a lot of us, when we reviewed that record, talked about him as a Robert Earl Keen acolyte. And here you are covering his “Train Song”.
Well, I love the song, you know? It’s just really fun, and I love the kind of character he’s describing. It just felt like the right thing to do, like it fit. And it’s not unprecedented for me – I often try to find songs that feel like maybe a song that I might have written. I just… man, I love that song. I just wanted to get it on there. I’ve known Todd for a long time. I’m a huge fan. I mean, it’s definitely the mutual admiration society there, man. I truly think Todd is one person who was just born for the stage, and belongs there. And if you don’t get the chance to see somebody who really belongs onstage, then you’ve missed it. Because there are only a handful of people who are really great on stage. I don’t care if they can’t boil water otherwise. When they’re up onstage it just knocks you out. And, that’s what Todd’s like. And, you know, his songwriting is really great, but it all comes together there on the stage.
Speaking of covering a song, you cover yourself on the new record with “Paint the Town Beige”. This new version is, I don’t want to say mellower, but there’s a wisdom to it that may not have been there 20 years ago.
I definitely feel like I grew into the song. The first time I recorded it just seemed like a pretty song to me. And, I’m not even sure that I was talking about myself the first time. But this time, I’m definitely talking about myself. And the way that came about, really, is that a lot of people – I don’t play that song a lot, onstage – when they talk about, why don’t you play a certain song, that one comes up more than anything else. I thought, you know, I’ve always liked the song. It always works well for me. It always works well when I sing it, and maybe some other people that don’t even know about it would really like this song. So, we just re-recorded it in the most stripped down way we could.
“The Road Goes On and On” (which alludes to your fan-favourite “The Road Goes on Forever”) and another tune on this record, “Top Down”, seem to be aimed in a similar direction, at a guy with lots of fame that may or may not be deserved.
Those songs… they’re not the same. But, they both really talk about celebrity to some degree. And, the “Road Goes On and On” has a message. And I’m not making any bones about it. The other one [“Top Down”] is, I was watching that movie Nine with Daniel Day-Lewis and he was driving around in that really cool little Italian car and then I was thumbing through some of these magazines and it just occurred to me that all these people that really do become seriously and hugely famous, well it must be that they realize that hey, all eyes are on you. And I tried to play down the sarcasm in the whole thing because it really wasn’t meant to be sarcasm. It’s more about how there really is a certain time in these people’s lives when, my God, all the focus is on them. And it must have some unbelievable energy to it.
Whereas “The Road Goes On and On” has another message to it, as you say. It’s a pretty angry message.
Aw I’m just kind of tired of it. You know. So. So, I fired back. That’s all.
It’s not to disparage the song or the sentiment behind it. Certainly celebrity culture is pretty terrifying these days.
I think so. It’s a big ol’ huge snakepit there! I just don’t even understand it! As much as some people you think should be really happy with it are unhappy with it, there’re other people who’re just missing it altogether, you know? I don’t know. I have this weird degree of celebrity which, if I had to choose… You know, the way I have celebrity is about as good as you can get because people don’t recognize me unless I open my mouth.
Speaking of celebrity, you have this wildly eclectic fan base – from rowdy college kids right on over to businesspeople, working guys and soccer moms. Obviously you are successful at speaking to diverse groups of people. But like you’re saying, people aren’t there for the hype around your fame. They’re there for the music.
Definitely for the music. I don’t live a tragic or squalid or scary or crazy life. I have a relatively normal existence. And I am also, I’m not consumed with the idea of fame. I am consumed with the idea of writing really good songs and making really good records. And that’s the most important part. The other part is just a byproduct. Whether it’s good for me or not, I’m just going to sidestep the whole celebrity thing. But, don’t get me wrong, I love being on stage. I love playing these songs. But, you know, all the stuff that goes along with it, where people are always in trouble or having trouble with celebrity or that sort of stuff? I seem to have been able to sidestep it. Which is fine with me.