Robert Earl Keen is proud to be a Texas musician
Award-winning songwriter will play Wednesday
October 9, 2017
Robert Earl Keen stopped during a Park Record interview to consider the implications of being a Texas singer-songwriter.
"I think I'm among a group of what some people consider like our country's Founding Fathers," Keen said in his down-to-earth fashion. "It's a really amazingly talented group and many people are unaware of all the participants."
Keen said the group includes the deep and sideways works of Bob Wills or the world-renowned works of Will Jennings who wrote "My Heart Will Go On" for the James Cameron's 1997 Academy Award-winning film "Titanic."
"It goes to the guilty pleasures that Roy Orbison ever wrote, and then there are all the black blues artists — Mance Lipscomb, Lightin' Hopkins, Freddy King," Keen said.
"People ask if there is something in the water, but I always say that Texas has always been a healthy music state from the beginning, because even before churches or settlements, people would get together after clearing some land or building a farm and play music."
Robert Earl Keen will bring some of his own Americana tunes to Park City when he and his band play Wednesday, Oct. 11, at O.P. Rockwell.
The show will attempt to cram more than 30 years of music into one night.
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"That's what we do most of the time," Keen said with a laugh. "I change up the set every night and pick through stuff that I have written throughout the years.
"Most of the time we hit the high-spot songs that people want to hear, but there is more left on the table that we can sing, I can tell you that."
Keen's debut album "No Kinda Dancer" was released in 1984, after the singer-songwriter already lived a few proverbial lifetimes.
"I've done everything from rough necking on oil rigs to working in Mexican food restaurants and even for the IRS," he said. "Once I picked up the guitar and strummed the D chord over and over for hours because of the incredible sound it was, I never wanted to do anything else."
In 1987, Keen took the leap of faith to play music full time.
"I quit my last real job at a bookstore at Vanderbilt University, and from then on I vowed I would I would write and play music," he said. "It wasn't long until I started getting along, and my wife didn't have to go back to work a couple of years later."
Keen's songwriting has been enhanced by an English degree he earned from Texas A&M in 1980.
"I'm not so driven by some sort of overriding idea, but I do have a facility to talk about something in a song in different ways," he said. "I can write a musical for Broadway, or I can write a simple country ballad or a pop ballad. I found over the years that I have a facility to be flexible and make a song."
The songs usually emerge from the images he sees in his head.
"I describe what is going on, and I think I'm stronger on the imagery than the narrative," Keen said.
Keen also enjoys writing songs with others.
"Since I usually write my own songs, people think I don't like to collaborate, but I do," he said.
It did take him a while getting over his own fears to start doing it, he confessed.
"I mean when you write songs with someone else, it's like you standing there naked, and that's kind of embarrassing and weird," he said. "It occurred to me a number of years that being timid wasn't doing anybody any good. I mean, I'm extremely flexible, and if someone is good with melody, I can certainly stand by and come up with words that fit the presentation."
Keen enjoys performing as much as he enjoys songwriting, especially if he's performing for something he believes in and with people he likes.
Last month, Keen performed the Hand in Hand benefit that raised more than $55 million for the cleanup and rebuilding of the Houston area in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
"Hand in Hand was important because it was a three-part benefit that took place in New York, L.A. and San Antonio," he said. "The one in San Antonio, which I was part of, was run by George Strait."
Keen performed songs with Strait, Lyle Lovett, Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert.
"The five of us got a long well and sang our songs with George's band," Keen said. "I couldn't stop smiling."
Keen was also happy to participate because organizers gave Strait full reign of the San Antonio event.
"He took some of money we raised, which was about $5 million, and give it to the small towns in the area — Rockport and Port Aransas and a couple of the other towns that were wiped off the map," Keen said. "George wanted direct results. We made the money and it would go directly to those towns on the coast."
If performing with friends and artists he respects isn't enough, Keen was recently voted Texas Country's No. 1 Live Act and inducted into the Texas Songwriter Hall of Fame.
That may seem odd to a man who wrote a song called "My Home Ain't in the Hall of Fame" in 2001.
I think I’m among a group of what some people consider like our country’s Founding Fathers. It’s a really amazingly talented group and many people are unaware of all the participants.”
"The award meant a lot to me, anyway," Keen said with a laugh. "We're out there busting our [butts] 180 days a year. So to be able to have someone acknowledge you're a great band makes everyone feel good.
"While I never look a gift horse in the mouth, I am a little skeptical about some of the other accolades," he said with another laugh. "A lot of times it's the timing of the thing. I mean there are some things that I would have wanted 10 years ago, so why now? I really haven't done anything lately, you know?"
For now, Keen's present and future have become one.
"I no longer think about what I'm doing next, because I'm doing it," he said. "I'm keeping the band on the road and I'm getting more interview requests than I used to. So I spend a lot of my time keeping ahead of my dust."
Keen said he's looking forward to his return to Park City.
"When people come see us, they'll see all seven of us on stage, and five of us have been together for 20 years," he said. "We really have this band thing happening. We're getting better and not worse."
Robert Earl Keen will perform at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at O.P. Rockwell, 268 Main St. Tickets range from $42 to $47 and can be purchased by visiting this website.
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