Robert Earl Keen: The Front End Of The Boat

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

 

Robert Earl Keen

 

— from the January/February 2010 Legends Issue

As singer-songwriters go, Robert Earl Keen doesn’t seem like the kind of artist who could honestly be accused of sloth. But despite a catalog choked with characters and conversations pulled from a colorful life, he makes that very claim on “Something That I Do,” a track where he brags of his ability to not let work get in the way of an otherwise pleasant afternoon.

Such themes turn up now and again on The Rose Hotel, Keen’s latest study in spinning everyday observations into the ache for home and belonging, traced through the lonely lodger at “The Village Inn” and the technology-tangled protagonist of “Wireless in Heaven.” By the end, Keen hasn’t exactly convinced you of his capacity for couch-sitting so much as he has made an album that makes you want to sit still and listen.

Listening to this record, I’m surprised by how much death emerges as a theme, especially for an album that doesn’t sound that dark.

Right. Well, it’s always lurking there. [Laughs] The Grim Reaper lurks around every corner, and it’s not unprecedented with my stuff. I’ve got a huge body count in A Bigger Piece of Sky. I think 30 or 40 people die on that one. There’s a moderate body count on The Rose Hotel. In general, I think the thing has a good feeling. For instance, if I want to pick it apart piece by piece, “Throwing Rocks” is like a murder ballad that I could have made into a bluegrass song, instead of a blues song. It’s a classic murder ballad. And the thing in “10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar” about duct tape is a tribute to [musician] Blaze Foley, and he did die there in Austin. And the one on “On and On” is really, in a private way, my own mirror image. So that’s where that stuff comes from.

I read that “On and On” is about your father. True?

Yeah, that’s what I’m saying about it being a mirror-image thing. The very last verse, that comes from a very personal experience. My dad died in 1997 and my mom died in 2000, and when that happens to you, there’s an emptiness that’s never filled.

Is it therapeutic to write a song like that?

For me, it is. It captures a moment. One of the things that happens to me, and one of the reasons that I write narrative things, [is that] once I’ve written this thing, it comes from a picture in my mind that I see the same way every time I sing it and every time I read it. It’s like you could paint a picture and hang it on the way. It’s never going to change. Even if I do that in a mean-spirited way sometimes, if I’ve got a little inside joke that’s a jab at somebody, it’s there forever and it locks it in. I get to say what I want to say and have it there and not forget it. That’s better, for me, than a whole roll of film.

Were your parents supportive of you as a musician?

No. My dad said that music should be an avocation, not a vocation, and my mom was always a laissez-faire parent. She just wanted me to do what I wanted to do, and I think she secretly prayed and hoped that I’d find another career. But I’d have to say that she was pretty supportive. My parents were children of the Depression, and they were always really frugal, like, “Well, we got you a pair of socks for your birthday,” when other kids were getting a pony or a go-cart. I was always amazed by how they were so cheap. But when I decided—and it was late—to play the guitar when I was 18, when I was going to school, my mom, just out of nowhere, said, “We’re going to get you a good guitar.” So we went down to this guitar store, and she bought me a Martin guitar, as good a guitar as you could possibly get. I’m telling you, it was like socks and shoes, and maybe some kind of off-brand baseball glove, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, after 18 years of existence, she buys me the best guitar she could get. So, in that way, she was very supportive. I didn’t have to struggle with a piece of junk guitar from when I first started.

I was also quiet about it. I had my own private dream and aspirations, but I didn’t go and jump into the world and say, “This is what I’m going to do, by God!” I just kept working at it, and playing in little groups and improving my little thing until I got out of school and went out and started playing. I had an 8-to-5 job, and I played all the time in the evenings. I didn’t really jump out there and tell anybody.

Do you remember the first time you realized that you had talent as a songwriter?

I can remember the first time the music and the lyrics came together. I could write rhyming poetry from the time that I could write, and it was often the only time that I really excelled in school, when they’d have poetry week in English or something. Then, bam, all of my stuff was all over the bulletin boards and in the yearbooks. When I started playing the guitar, I learned D, G and A, and went, “Wow! I can write a song.” So that all came together, and I immediately figured out that I could use this ability to write rhyming poetry and put it to a song. I’ve spent years, though, struggling with the format. I never did decide, “Oh, I’m going to write country songs,” or, “Oh, I’m going to write folk songs.” I always bounced around. I never did have a real good sense of format.

So how long did it take you to really find your feet as a songwriter?

I would say about a year. I was playing with this little band and playing guitar behind this guy that played the fiddle, and my other friend, Duckworth, played the fiddle too. So we were playing these string band things, like, Irish fiddle tunes. And they were trying to learn some bluegrass songs, and I was saying, “Why don’t we just write our own songs?” And I would write these songs, and they’d go, “Oh, man. We want to sing a Stanley Brothers song or a Bill Monroe song.” And I’d say, “Well, you know, they already sing those songs. Why don’t we make up our own songs?” So we learned those Bill Monroe songs, and I kept working on my own songs. Every once in awhile, I’d pull out one and say, “Let’s try this,” and I’d get batted down and would put another song in my back pocket. When I left that bluegrass/string band thing, I never looked back. I just decided that I was going to write the songs, but pretty much my entire college career was spent figuring that out. I’ve never been a quick learner. I’m not a quick study. I’ve always just moved along and made improvements. My strong suit is my longevity.

So by the time you made No Kind of Dancer, you must have been pretty confident.

Yeah. I had gone to Austin and I had got really into KUT radio. They had this “folkways” program, and I went on for about four hours on Saturday mornings. I went down to see them and I thought, “Wow, this is cool. If I made a record, maybe they’d play it.” That was the idea behind that one, that I could make a record and that someone I was pretty close to—as in KUT radio—might play it. That was all the impetus I needed to get started. In my office, I have this big frame that my cousin made, and it has the LP of No Kind of Dancer, and my letter that I sent to friends, and my prospectus about how I needed a hundred bucks from each one of them and how I’d pay them back in this particular time period. It’s really funny. Anyway, I borrowed a hundred bucks from each of them and I paid them all back. It worked out.

Did you ever have aspirations to make inroads on mainstream country radio?

I love country music and I’ve been a fan forever, but I couldn’t figure out in my mind exactly how I fit. I have all these acoustic leanings and stripped-down leanings, and I’ve always known that I don’t have a great voice. The center of mainstream country is these great voices. The people that I really admired were Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins, and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, and I never had that great of a voice. I never did put my mind to it a lot, and I never beat up people that I knew in Nashville much on that deal until I started hearing stuff that I didn’t think was as good as some of the stuff that I was doing. Then I put some effort in trying to have some inroads in some country markets, but the timing was bad on that one. It fell apart. I was with Arista about that time and Clive Davis closed the door on Arista Nashville, and that was the end of that deal. Right about the time I was making some moves with some of the guys there, they were getting behind me, and there was some talk about making some effort. I was just making pretty good records and selling plenty of them for them to justify me being there, but I wasn’t getting any country radio play.

It must be gratifying that, now that you’ve been around for awhile, your name is tied to people like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.

It absolutely is. They’re totally my mentors. Going out with Guy and Townes was part of my big springboard for being a touring person. Before that, I’d just done a lot of stuff on my own. I’ve always had the greatest respect for their writing and their work. I’ve heard it inside and out, and I feel like I’m pretty knowledgeable about it. I would say that they’re among the best that are out there. I feel like I was lucky in that way.

Since Townes has passed away and has become bigger than life in so many of these stories about him, do you think people remember him as he was or has he been made into something he wasn’t?

He was a very complex person and multifaceted. There’s that continued obsession with his alcoholism and his antics on stage, which go from really funny to really sad. It’s like a lot of stuff that goes on with how people are remembered, and I think all that overshadows a lot of great things like the fact that he had an amazing intellect. He was really smart and, when he was on his game, he was way quicker than anybody I knew. He could almost anticipate the next statement or next question. I think part of that whole alcoholism was to slow down an overactive brain. And then his poetry — with the exception of “Marie” and “The Hole” and “Waiting Around to Die” — is so beautiful and optimistic and full of color.

It’s like how history buffs or poetry buffs only want to talk about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his laudanum addiction and how he was a big mess. You forget the beauty of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or the different poems that he created at the time. That personality overshadows the brilliance and the beauty of someone.

One of my favorite things about Townes was that he could sit more still than anybody I’ve ever seen. He did not fidget. I remember playing a whole show in Northampton, Massachusetts, and he sat in the back. All I could see was his silhouette, and it never moved to the point that I thought I was looking at something other than a person. We’d drive around together and he’d sit there in the passenger seat like some old grandmother that was waiting to go to church. He’d be perfectly still, I guess just lost in his thoughts. I always thought that was kind of interesting.

When you were with him did you talk songwriting?

No. Not really. Now, I have this great yearning to talk to people about songwriting, but back then I was so afraid that I was divulging some of my secrets or stepping on their toes. I regret that, because I wish I would have talked to some of those people. Harland Howard would hold court and talk about songwriting at length, and it was beautiful. He would give you tons and tons of examples, and talk about compares and contrasts and what was strong about a song, and it was like getting a college education on songwriting. That was fascinating. I had some of those kinds of talks with Lyle [Lovett] when I was younger, but now, if I’m running across somebody that I know writes songs, I really try to get into, “How do you think about this? How does this work for you?” You want to know more about it, because there is kind of a magic to it that’s not real clear. It’s that sort of floating sun-like thing in your outer vision. It’s a little bit hard to grab a hold of exactly what’s going on with it.

Does the process seem as mysterious as when you started or does it get clearer the more you’ve done it?

No, it gets clearer the more I’ve done it. I don’t know exactly where the ideas come from, but when I get into a songwriting mode and it’s coming along, it’s like you’re on the front end of a boat and you’re going through the water, and the breeze is blowing through your hair and the water’s smooth, and you’re going out to sea. I love that feeling.

Can you push yourself into that mode or do you have to wait for it?

I would say it has to be the latter. It’s funny that you say about waiting for it, because my friend Terry Allen, one time I talked to him about writing songs. I said, “I haven’t really experienced true writer’s block, but I feel kind of dead sometimes. What do you do?” And he said, “Sometimes, Robert Earl, you’ve just go to wait. You just get in that chair and you sit there and you wait.” I said, “Why can’t you just do the dishes?” And he replied, “No. You can’t do the dishes. You can’t sharpen your pencils, and you can’t go clean your gun or any of that crap. You’ve got to just wait.” And you know what? He’s not lying. I’ve taken his advice, and I’ve sat in a chair for three hours and nothing happened, and then all of sudden something started happening. That’s one of my favorite things that anyone ever told me about songwriting.

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