Robert Earl Keen doesnít have the kind of memory an interviewer would like him to have. Though we wonít surmise why, weíll at least give him the fact that since his career began in Texas in the early í80s, well, a lot has happened. "Itís not all about drugs and alcohol," says Keen, chuckling, a gruff voice at the other end of the line, "but things just run together over the years, like watercolor paintings."
When Robert Earl Keen comes to the Rhythm & Roots Festival on Labor Day weekend, you can bet heíll use some of that watercolor to paint some of his signature tunes for us, like "The Road Goes On Forever" and "Corpus Christi Bay." Those familiar with Keen know that his material has never been predictable, bouncing from sensitive acoustic folk to barroom-brawliní fun. Those who donít need only know that he paints from a pretty colorful palette.
Like many an alternative cowboy who chooses to play by his own rules, Keen has had more than his share of ups and downs, peaks and valleys. But right now, he says heís in as good a time and place as heís ever been. He recently performed at Bonnaroo and played a handful of dates opening for Dave Matthews. Speaking from his Texas office, the space thatís "launched a thousandth of a ship," Keen says, "Lately, itís been great shows with a great band, everybody gets along, and the label [Sugar Hill], is full of good people."
The son of a Houston oil exec and mom attorney, Keen chose to go his own way early on and has made steady progress ever since. "When I made my first record [in 1984]," he recalls, "which I like but itís awful sparse and quaint, I had this stupid fantasy going. I was waiting for someone to call me any day to offer me a Grammy and a big tour. But nothing happened. The record company treated me like a nuisance. I didnít have a clue as to where I belonged." Based on a hunch, he headed to Nashville, where several like-minded Texans, including Lyle Lovett, were beginning to see some mainstream country success.
When the move to Nashville didnít work out, Keen returned to Texas to rejuvenate, and has stayed put ever since, notwithstanding the hundreds of dates he does every year. The home of many simpatico artists, the Austin area has continued to inspire Keen artistically, socially, and musically. The night before we spoke he had participated in a musical tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, another sublime Texas icon. "It was really something," he says, sounding like heís feeling the effects of the evening. "At one point there were more people backstage than there were in the front of the house, and there were a thousand people in the house." Such is the incestuous and intimate nature of Austinís city limits, where everyone is intensely dedicated to music, both as fans and musicians.
Keenís newest record, Farm Fresh Onions, is something of a departure. "For me, the big kick of the whole thing is to keep doing stuff and trying new things," he says. "Some people get afraid to try new things, and I find out if I can. Can I write an opera? Hell yeah, I can write an opera. Tom Waits has never felt constrained. As far as artists go, thatís our job, to create."
Keen also likes to create lots of enthusiasm from the stage. "I love performing. Iíve always told musicians I play with that a record is a record and the performance is a performance. I donít want people to play note for note. I tell them, ĎDo not feel like you have to play what you play on the record.í Golly, I know bands that do that, and itís like, ĎHow boring is that?í You get the vibe and hopefully play a set that has flow and has some meaning to the day."
Robert Earl Keen will perform on Saturday, September 4 at the Rhythm &Roots Festival at Ninigret Park in Charlestown. Call (888) 885-6940, or go to www.RhythmAndRoots.com.
Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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