From Texas with love3/5/2014
Few states in the Union tout their native sons quite like Texas. And in a state as rich in musical history as the Lone Star State is, few are touted with as much full-throated respect as Robert Earl Keen.
The Houston native has been writing, singing and performing his own brand of folk, bluegrass and Americana since he graduated from Texas A&M in 1980. Since then, he’s released 18 albums, worked alongside fellow Texans Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett and, in 2012, Keen was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who didn’t crack the upper half of the Billboard Top 200 until 2009.
“I guess there were times when I’d think that I’d want to be mainstream,” Keen said in a phone interview. “But it really never was meant to be. I haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about it. But I certainly have wondered what it takes to be mainstream, because I’m not really sure what that is. Just about the time that you think that you’ve figured things out, it changes. But, you know, we all have our own destinies, and I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with that whole idea. So, I just like to write what I write.”
It’s a philosophy that’s worked well for Keen. He’s long been regarded as one of Texas’ greatest musical ambassadors and is widely considered a “musician’s musician” in bluegrass, country and Americana circles. Lovett recently told Texas Monthly Magazine that Robert’s “ability to be objective from a detached point of view” is something he admired: “His imagery and descriptive powers are fantastic. You get a real, concrete sense of what he’s talking about. I listen to a song of Robert’s that does that and think, ‘That’s great writing. I wish I could do that.’ ”
“I think that every good piece of fiction stems from a true story,” Keen said, describing his “objective detachment.” “I always get a kick out of how movies always say it’s from a true story. Well, hell, it’s all from some kind of point of truth. It just depends on how much your imagination kicks in.”
And it’s that alchemy of fiction and truth — the seamless blending of narrative and imagination — that sets Keen upon his pedestal. While there are musicians (Lovett included) who have gone on to greater commercial success, few put pen to paper quite as deftly as Keen. And perhaps nobody does it quite as uniquely.
“I really like to latch on to some kind of music that stirs me or something that piques my interest,” he said, describing his writing process. “So, I kind of just strum guitars. My God, when I really get set up to writing, I set about five, six or seven guitars around me. I’ll strum on one for a while, and maybe I’ll feel like it’s kind of dead. So, I’ll pick up another one until I sort of get a vibe.
“With ‘The Great Hank’ (off 2005’s ‘What I Really Mean’), I was truly trying to do one of those things that was really interesting and really sideways. (So) I got naked and laid down on the floor in the shack that I write in and I played the guitar until that kind of popped out.”
But no matter how he does it, or from where those words come, there’s no denying the result — 18 albums, 35 years of music and the love of people throughout his home state and beyond.
“I’m glad that I do connect with people,” he added. “That’s the main thing. If I didn’t connect, then I wouldn’t be doing this.” CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines who would love to take his talents abroad if the rent were not so much more affordable in Des Moines.