In lyric and life, on stage and in stereo, Robert Earl Keen Jr. is a very funny fellow. However, the Houston-born-and-bred musician with the cool, slightly quirky Southern tones and clever lyrics found nothing humorous about a poster heralding his appearance at one of his 150 road shows in 1991.
It was my worst nightmare," sighs Keen during a recent telephone conversation from his Bandera, Texas, home. ÔThe sign said, `Now Appearing: Comedian Singer-Songwriter Robert Earl Keen Jr.' It was frightening. I'm not a comedian; I'm a musician and songwriter who's done some funny songs."
Keen is one of a growing cadre of topflight Texas pensmith-performers, and his protest is validated by a careful listen to his three-album body of work and a quick review of his songs that have been covered by others. Filled with equal numbers of tongue-in-cheek jibes at ordinary life, purely poetic odes to ordinary love and portraits of extraordinary people, Keen's recorded output may be small, but his talent looms large. His first album, a 1985 Rounder/Philo release called No Kinda Dancer, reflects his eclectic directions, while the follow-up on folk-heavy Sugar Hill Records, The Live Album, captures him where many say he's at his best: onstage. In both cases, the work displays the sweet and tart sides to the 35-year-old's offbeat world view.
But his latest effort, 1989's acclaimed West Textures, also on Sugar Hill, leans further toward the serious-a conscious attempt on the good-natured Keen's part to downplay his comedic tendencies. The album's centerpiece, in fact, is a rambling, chilling drama about small-town badness called The Road Goes on Forever," most recently covered by Texas legend Joe Ely. Other Keen creations-most of a serious bentÏhave been recorded by the Lone Star likes of Kelly Willis, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, and the headmaster of the Texas songwriters school, Guy Clark.
I can't think of a finer compliment to a songwriter," Keen drawls softly. I've heard others complain that they could do their own songs better than anyone else, but that isn't the point. Somebody sings one of your songs, well, what greater acknowledgment is there?"
Still, Keen hasn't suppressed his organic sense of humor entirely-it's a natural and fundamental element in his work. West Textures contains a number of belly-laugh inducers, including a classic fish tale in The Five-Pound Bass" and the toe-tapping, knee-slapping It's the Little Things (that piss me off)."
While Keen may have been born with a hyperactive funny bone, it's clear that several events nurtured his humor.
First of all," he chuckles, take my choice of college. I went to Texas A&M. I mean, College Station, Texas, isn't exactly the recreation capital of the world. I don't want to tick off any Aggies, but short of catfishing in the Brazos River and looking at the very few girls to be found around town, there's not much going on there. If I'd gone to UT or Santa Cruz, I would've had a blast, no doubt. At A&M, I didn't have to worry about such distractions as fun or girls. Music was the creative escape."
Keen began his college days as an animal-science major (I was into FFA and all that") but soon realized that the care and feeding of sundry furry beasts wasn't his calling. After a year, I found that I wasn't really interested," Keen admits. But English-hey, I can speak that. And I'd always been a big reader. So I became an English major. I think there were three others."
Keen's College Station house eventually became a proving ground of sorts for Aggies with a penchant for lyric and melody instead of plowing and vivisection.
There was music on my front porch every day-every day," Keen recalls. ÔIt might be one person or ten people, but it was a daily thing."
Regulars on Keen's front porch often noticed a tall, gangly student bicycling by. One day the fellow wheeled up and asked if he might join in. This inquiring Aggie (and journalism major) was the tall-haired Texan Lyle Lovett. Keen and Lovett became fast-and lasting-friends, but while the two did combine forces to write the Lovett-recorded Front Porch Song," Keen is quick to correct previous accounts which placed Lovett as a resident of the house.
Not a chance, man," Keen laughs. Lyle is picky-a most particular person, a real clean freak. We could never be roommates."
Nevertheless, Keen is swift to credit Lovett with influencing his musical direction.
I was always in bands, especially bluegrass bands," remembers Keen. Lyle was in a solo mode, and he got me to realize that I could do it alone, too."
After graduating from Texas A&M in 1980, Keen set out to establish himself as a songwriter and performer. Among the Texas elbows he rubbed along the way was that of Texas country rocker Steve Earle. Keen was having difficulty getting his songs heard, and they weren't exactly packing Texas dance palaces to see him. Earle urged Keen to peddle his wares in Nashville.
I hated it," Keen growls. Well, actually, I was homesick. Others are more chameleonlike, but I'm really a Texan. In Nashville, they called shredded pork `barbecue' and there were no Mexican restaurants." Keen audibly shudders. However, since West Textures, he admits, he goes back and forth between home and Music City to write, record, hang out with pals-taking little vacations."
The miniholidays behind the Pine Curtain have resulted in the creation of some demo tracks, and Keen is fishing around for the right record deal. His contract with Sugar Hill is completed and, as of now, Keen boasts that I don't owe anybody anything...other than my wife, of course."
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I'd like to have something out as much as anybody," says Keen, but you can't put a time frame on art. I've got the songs, but I want to make sure I do the right thing for myself."
In the meantime, Keen enjoys his inexorably growing fame, especially as it is sometimes manifested. There's just something about hearing a reggae version of one of my songs done around a Texas campfire," he laughs. And no matter how successful he becomes, Keen insists that there is simply no way he'd leave the quiet, rolling hills of Bandera, Texas, for Nashville, Tennessee.
Shit, no!" Keen scoffs. We got a great bar"-Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar Saloon-300 clear days a year and every other place is a barbecue joint. Why would I leave?"
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