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10 Minutes with Robert Earl Keen

‘Jesus, can we stop with the songwriting for just a second?’
Jim Caligiuri, 10:07am, Fri. Dec. 20, 2013

Tonight, Robert Earl Keen wraps up a very successful year with his Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee production for ACL Live at the Moody Theater. We caught up with the Hill Country raconteur last week, recapping his first ever tour with fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett, the making of his upcoming bluegrass LP, and the fact that it’s Robert, not Bobby.

Robert Earl Keen: Does anyone call you Jimmy?

Geezerville: Just my mother, but she passed away a couple of years ago. Why do you ask?

REK: Just curious. Occasionally people call me Bobby and I’m never Bobby. It’s a hot button issue with me. I had one guy tell me once I told him to call me Bobby and I knew he was a liar.

G: I’m the same way with Jimbo.

REK: I forgot about that one.

G: So 2013 is wrapping up. Has this been a good year for you?

REK: This has been the best year in maybe a dozen years. We had great shows. There was a great outpouring of opportunity.

It started off really well. I’m one of those superstitious people who like the New Year to start off well. We did 18 shows in a row and 17 were sold out. Those were all in the Northeast/mid-Atlantic area. Then I did those shows with Lyle Lovett and they were fantastic, over the top. I just had a great year.

It was the first year in a dozen years that we turned stuff down. My schedule was just too full. One of my goals at the beginning of the year was to make a record. I’ve started to make a record, so I’m batting .500 with that.

G: Were those the first shows you’ve ever played with Lyle?

REK: It was the first time we ever did that kind of thing. When he first broke out in ‘87 or ‘88, I opened up shows for him.

G: Was there something that prevented the pairing from happening?

REK: We just remained friends. Sometimes the entertainment thing can make that anxious. I left it alone. I’d ask him to sing on records and he did that. But we never sat down and said, “Let’s go out and be Waylon and Willie.”

G: When I saw you two at the Paramount, it seemed like the Lyle Lovett TV show. He was grilling you! He should be doing that on television.

REK: He really should. He’s very thorough with the questions he comes up with. I had a ball. We’ll continue to do those in the future. I’ve been so adamant about keeping the band thing going. I’m big on not throwing mixed signals out there – playing solo one night and with the band the next. People say, “I just want to hire you. How much does that cost?”

In the first place, don’t talk to me about that, and in the second place it’s the band or nothing. I’m not interested, outside of doing a radio appearance or something like that. So, alongside the opportunity to go out with Lyle came the chance to play different songs and talk about things that I used to really enjoy when I used to play solo.

G: You mentioned a new album. Have you started recording?

REK: Yeah, I’m doing a bluegrass record, traditional bluegrass songs, using Bill Whitbeck and Rich Brotherton from the band, and Marty Muse is going to play some dobro. I’ve also got Sara Watkins, Danny Barnes, and Kim Warner, and we just went in and tracked one song after another. We’ve tracked 26 songs so far and I don’t think we’re even finished.

I’ve always had this love for bluegrass. It’s always been this teetering country artist doing some bluegrass. I wanted to do it for a long time and I thought I’d better do it now. It’ll probably be out in May.

Admittedly, I’m not a quote/unquote bluegrass singer, so I want things to sound good. I don’t want things to sound like I’m straining to sound like Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers. I want the songs to sound good.

G: And they’re bluegrass standards, not songs that you wrote.

REK: I could sit down and make up some fake bluegrass songs, but I just thought it would sound really contrived.

G: What about taking some fan favorites and doing them bluegrass style?

REK: I considered that, but then it would kind of fall under the unplugged thing. There’s some arranging and editing going on, but I wanted to make the songs sound like how bluegrass songs sound to me.

G: Are you having a hard time writing your own songs?

REK: Oh no. I write all the time. I’m just trying to do something different. Maybe I’m a little bored with some of it. I do feel with as many records as I’ve put out and as long as I’ve been in this business, I do feel a little bit at a loss for what to do that’s really interesting.

How many zillions of songs are out there? It’s like a movie. It starts off following a camel, then you widen the scene and there’s some palm trees and some sand. Then it becomes a country, then it becomes the world, then it becomes the universe.

It’s like, “Jesus, can we stop with the songwriting for just a second?”

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