Long before he could play a lick, Robert Earl Keen was penning songs. He just didn't know it at the time.
"I've always written rhyming poetry well, from when I was five years old," says Keen, who's in his early forties. "I'd just grab words out of the air. I remember how one time back then I had to ask my mom how to spell 'silhouette.' And when I was in fifth grade, I didn't know what the word 'subdue' meant, but it just popped into my head when I was writing a poem about the earth, I think. That's the one true gift I've got. I can't always control it, but when I'm able to turn it on correctly, I come up with more than I ever could've thought up consciously trying."
Plenty of Keen's peers agree: Whenever roots and country artists are asked to come up with a list of their favorite tunesmiths, odds are good that Keen's name will be near the top of it. A Texas native who grew up in the Houston area, he met and befriended Lyle Lovett when both were attending Texas A&M during the late Seventies, and like the man with the big hair, Keen is adept at assembling narratives from the stuff of real life--the sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes baffling things each of us encounters between climbing out of bed at the beginning of the day and climbing back into it again at day's end. And even though he's got seven fine albums to his credit (No Kinda Dancer, The Live Album, West Textures, A Bigger Piece of Sky, Gringo Honeymoon, No. 2 LIVE Dinner and Picnic), he's not even close to running out of material. On May 27, with studio time already booked for the recording of his next offering for the Arista Austin imprint, he realized that he needed some new songs to sing--so he wrote nine of them, just like that.
"Even for me, that was pretty fast," he concedes. "I was kind of under the gun because we'd been touring so heavily. But this is what I like to do. It's not like I first decided to become a singer-songwriter and then said, 'Oh, yeah, I'd better learn how to do the writing part of it.'"
What's been more difficult for Keen over the years is convincing people that he's a damn fine performer, too. Part of the problem may be that he got his start not on country labels, but on folk imprints. No Kinda Dancer first appeared during the mid-Eighties on Philo, and the arrangements on the platter managed to feel spare even when trombones, trumpets and tubas were part of the mix. Later Keen moved to Sugar Hill, a company that's well-known in the folk and bluegrass communities. Thus, only a relative handful of people knew that Keen is a smart, sassy, authentic honky-tonker at heart.
Fortunately for Keen, he's getting better at capturing these qualities on CD. Picnic, his 1997 Arista Austin debut, sports the kind of grade-A production he's long deserved, and it brings out the best in him. His singing, which can sound a bit nondescript on CD, is more effective than it's been on any of his previous studio recordings, and the contributions of his road band and guests such as onetime Denverite Tim O'Brien and Cowboy Junkies chanteuse Margo Timmons give the tracks the heft they need. "Undone" is a rich character study about an embittered loser ("It ain't your fault, but they need someone/To blame it on when they come undone"); "Shades of Gray" lays out a mistaken-identity scenario that alters the dynamics of three friendships forever ("We turned around to face our fate, hungover but alive/On that morning in late April, Oklahoma 95"); and "Oh Rosie" exudes equal parts romance and regret ("Now I'm in Denver/In this old bar/Tryin' to do anything to hang on to you").
Picnic's title commemorates the 1974 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, at which Keen's car was burnt to a crisp in a parking-lot fire; a photo of it in flames graces the cover. But Keen also intended the handle to imply that "the group of songs I was presenting kind of went from A to Z. It was like, here's your picnic, ants and all." Now, however, Keen regards the platter's diversity to be its primary weakness, and he intends to make amends on his next effort. "I've always felt that I wasn't consistent enough throughout my records," he notes. "In Picnic, say, you have 'Over the Waterfall,' which is a dreamy, stream of consciousness sort of thing, on the same record as 'Then Came Lo Mein,' which is a quirky, crying-in-your-beer song. So I wanted more consistency, and that's why I've sort of stuck with one theme on the new one--that theme being that hope carries on, although every person is alone."
Keen's description of the as-yet-untitled full-length's centerpiece makes his ambitions plain. "There are three songs connected in a story kind of way," he says. "The first is called 'The Road to No Return,' which is like a verse and a chorus. And then it goes into a song about this man who goes crazy and accidentally kills his wife; then he leaves the country and winds up in Mexico. Then there's another song where he's alone, but life carries on, and that goes back into 'The Road of No Return.'"
Listeners accustomed to the one-dimensionality of many country composers may be taken aback by this resolution. After all, Keen's murderer-protagonist escapes prison and/or death, and the environment in which he finds himself is not devoid of hope. Such ambiguity is typical of Keen, who prides himself on steering clear of predictability.
"Why does the bad guy always have to get nailed?" he asks. "Is there, like, a rule in screenplay writing or songwriting that he always has to get caught? I don't think so. Like in this thing, the guy ends up alone, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a chance for redemption. He's got every day, and life can change--for anyone."
The biggest change of late for Keen came with his signing to Arista Austin after more than a decade on independent labels. Whereas most artists who make similar transitions downplay such shifts in affiliation, Keen comes right out and admits that they were sizable--and not always positive.
"Here's one thing," he says. "Sugar Hill was owned by one man who makes all the decisions. If I wanted to find out something, I called him directly at his home, and he would take in all the information and think about it--and after he gave you his answer, that would be it; if it was no, it was no, and if it was yes, then you'd move on. But that wasn't the way it was with Arista. I got a lot of stuff from them that I'd never gotten before, like posters, nifty artwork, postcards that I could send, stuff like that. But when it came time to getting an answer, well, it usually took about two weeks, and that became frustrating. That's because it was started in Austin but run out of Nashville, so you had this whole committee of people. And it's easier to deal with one guy than to deal with three or four guys.
"They didn't have all their ducks in a row, either. They hired publicists and radio guys for the label, and some of them were terrible, but the guys in charge didn't know it. And when they figured it out, well, these guys were pretty young, so they sat around and held their hands for a while instead of just getting rid of them."
At this point, Keen isn't sure how much damage was done to the Picnic campaign as a result of these problems: "I never got much radio airplay in the first place, so when I didn't get any again, I was used to it," he claims. "And I sold between 60,000 and 70,000 records, which is the exact amount that my last three records sold."
Because the overhead at Sugar Hill is much lower than it is at Arista, Keen likely made less money on the album than he would have under his previous circumstances. Nonetheless, he feels that moving to Arista was the right decision. In his words, "I felt like I needed to do it just because it was a little more stature. After a while, people think, 'If this guy's so great, why doesn't he go to a major label?' And things have gotten better. Now everything's being run out of Nashville, so decisions are down to about a week."
Thus far, Arista Austin has put no pressure on Keen to alter his approach to fit the hot-country marketplace, and that's the way he likes it; he intends to follow his own creative path if for no other reason than that he despises the alternative. "I don't feel part of country music today," he says. "How could I? Have you checked out a country radio station lately? Doesn't that stuff make you just throw up? It's just so awful--and what's even worse, they're all the same formula. They sound like crap, and none of them are interesting. That's what makes them different from other crappy country songs. Go back and listen to country music from the Seventies or something and you'll realize that they had some really bad stuff--but it was laughingly bad. Like in 1974, the country song of the year was 'Country Bumpkin,' by Cal Smith. Do you remember that song? It went, 'Hello, country bumpkin, how's the frost out on the pumpkin?'" He cackles. "Man, when I used to hear that, I'd just fall out of my chair because it was so charmingly horrible. But the songs now aren't charmingly horrible anymore. They're just awful--that's all."
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In contrast to the quasi-novelty ditties that clog current country radio, Keen's work is dense with detail. "I like to pack in a lot of stuff, because I think it's more interesting," he concedes. "I guess when it comes to writing songs, I'm not inspired by listening to other songs as much as I am by reading short stories and novels. Sometimes there are sections of books where I completely don't understand what's going on, but at the same time, it might inspire some feelings and thoughts and some sort of emotion. And I really like that. I don't try to do that much in songwriting, but sometimes it just happens."
For this reason, true Keen aficionados tend to find symbolic significance in all of his words, whether their creator put it there intentionally or not. "That happens all the time," Keen says. "My favorite was with this guy named Munroe who does these unbelievable walks--like, last year, he walked from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Chile. And when he was on his way to Chile, he was on this mountain in Ecuador with his girlfriend and they took some peyote and listened to this song of mine, 'Gringo Honeymoon.' He said while he was sitting there, he totally understood the entire universal meaning of it. And when he was telling me about it, it kind of scared me. He's a wonderful guy, talkative and entertaining, but I had to say to him, 'Well, Munroe, I wasn't on peyote when I wrote that song. I think I drank a few beers that day, but that was it.'"
Although Munroe thinks he knows what "Gringo Honeymoon" is about, Keen's not so sure; the rhymes came to him as they've been doing since his childhood, and all he did was jot them down. "Like [the late singer-songwriter] Townes Van Zandt used to say, 'Sometimes they just fall out of the sky,'" Keen points out. "And it's my job to catch them."
Robert Earl Keen. 10 p.m. Friday, July 24, Grizzly Rose, 5450 North Valley Highway, $5, 830-