Meet Chet O'Keefe
Kinky Friedman & Nanci Griffith can vouch for the new local
By William Harries Graham,
4:20PM, Thu. Jan. 30, 2014
Chet O’Keefe begins a four-week residency at Strange Brew this Sunday, 6-7:30pm. He’s been staying out at Kinky Friedman’s ranch in Medina since Thanksgiving following a tour together last year. Friedman called up Strange Brew owner Scott Ward a couple weeks ago trying to get O’Keefe a gig.
Says Ward: “You never know what to expect when someone calls you and asks you to listen to their friend. Within 30 seconds of listening to O’Keefe’s “Game Bird,” I was hooked. Magic, pure magic.
“I booked him an hour later.”
Now, O’Keefe’s moving to Austin – next month. Originally from the Northeast, he spent nine years in Nashville, did a short stint in Dallas, and lived for three years in Northern Washington until making his way to Central Texas at Friedman’s invitation.
After Strange Brew on Sundays in February, O’Keefe moves to Poodie’s on Thursdays in March. One other Sunday recommendation, for this week only: my father Jon Dee Graham and Scrappy Jud Newcomb put on their annual Super Bowl acoustic show at the Continental Club Gallery this weekend. Doors 8pm, no cover.
Austin Chronicle: How did you meet Kinky Friedman?
Chet O’Keefe: I met Kinky in Sweden. I was the opening act for the Scandinavian leg of his Bi-Polar World Tour last year. He said Austin would be a good place for my music, so I drove down here from Eastern Washington State up near the Canadian border. I’ve been staying here at his ranch gathering my wits before moving into town. Touring with Kinky was fun. He drew great crowds everywhere we went, and I learned a lot from his showmanship and his easy ability relating to people.
AC: Where are you from originally
CO: I grew up in Southern Maine and New Hampshire. I was force fed jazz as a kid and gravitated to anything with a back beat like Robert Johnson, Albert Collins, Albert King, Buddy Guy, the Dead, Cat Stevens, and the Moody Blues.
AC: How do your Yankee roots influence you?
CO: A question only a Southerner could ask! During winter months, I’d spend a lot of time inside near the wood stove with a Fender Telecaster and my favorite records.
AC: How did you wind up in Nashville and how was it?
CO: I won a songwriting competition when I was living in Western Massachusetts and the fellow running it encouraged me to go to Nashville, so I did. I lived there nine years and met some amazing people; mainly all of them through Brown’s Diner, where I played every Sunday for close to seven years. Nashville’s got a glitzy rep, but there’s real heart there if you look.
AC: How did you meet Nanci Griffith?
CO: In Nashville at Brown’s Diner. The bartender played my music for her and told me she was a fan. She sang on my demos, hooked me up with her producer Thomm Jutz, sang on my record, and had me over to tour with her in Ireland in 2010. I can’t say enough about Nanci. She’s been a great encouragement to me and other artists that she believes in.
AC: Favorite performances so far?
CO: Going from playing at Brown’s Diner to opening for Nanci Griffith in a sold-out room at the National Concert Hall in Dublin Ireland was one of them. Also, when I played at that songwriter competition years ago, I broke my A string at a crucial point. I stopped playing but held the note vocally, and the room joined in humming and singing that note until I was able to pick up a spare guitar I had procured before starting the song. That was cool. I got a Martin guitar as part of the winners loot, got pointed to Nashville, then up to Washington, Sweden, then here. That broken string set a lot in motion.
AC: Describe your European tours?
CO: I toured in Europe with Nanci Griffith and Kinky, and the audiences were folk singer heaven, very receptive and warm. I played some gigs at a high security prison in Sweden where the promoter Bjorn works, and playing for those guys was great. Some of the younger inmates wanted to hear rap and know how much money I made and what was America like, so we’d talk like that, but watching others tune in and get carried away, that was good to see.
AC: What’s your songwriting process like?
CO: I think of Leonard Cohen’s quote, “If I knew where the songs came from, I’d go there more often.” It’s writing enough to paint the frame and outline the picture, but not so much that folks can’t fill in their own colors and what not. It’s creating the time whenever or wherever to grab the song when it’s floating past your face, and having a pen at hand or any object that can make a mark to write it down before it leaves. Then listening to what the song asks for, bounce it around, listen more, bounce it off a friend, listen to them – or don’t – but let the song point the way. Sometimes it’s a like that and other times, bam, there it is.