One More Image

Robert Earl Keen Searches For...

Robert Earl Keen has never had a problem with images, but what happened one rainy Nashville evening 10 years ago went way beyond symbolic. He had endured just about every indignity a young songwriter could possibly expect. He was broke, exhausted, covered in mud, and about to shake the hand of one of country music's biggest stars, when the Houston native realized something really wasn't working.

"This guy that managed Steve Wariner got me to landscape his yard," remembers Keen. "He said, `Do you know how to landscape?' I said, `Sure.' Which I didn't, but I figured I could do it and I needed the money. So I bought all the stuff, and dug up the flowerbeds and all that sort of thing. There were about five trees that had been cut down, like Oleander trees or something, and they had a huge root system. I had to dig down to the roots, take an axe, and chop 'em all up. It took me about two and a half hours per tree.

"So, I'm out there for 12 hours or so. It was raining, and I was totally covered in mud from head to toe. I needed money, so I went to this guy's office. It was about 9pm. I said, `Hey Dan, I came over here to see if you can pay me, because I need the money.' He had Steve Wariner there in his office. He said, `Come in here.' I said, `Okay, great,' and I walked in his office and there's Steve Wariner. I knew who Steve Wariner was: Big country act, great guitar player. Dan says `This is Robert Earl Keen. He's a great songwriter.' And Steve stuck out his hand and I thought [he's probably thinking], `Right. This guy's a great songwriter. Why does he look like somebody that just came off the set of Quest for Fire?'"

Ten years later, back in Texas, older, wiser, and scrubbed all around the ears, 41-year-old Robert Earl Keen is still a great songwriter, due in large part to stories like that one. Showcasing such stories are three studio albums, 1989's West Textures, 1993's A Bigger Piece of Sky, and 1994's Gringo Honeymoon, which are bookended with 1988's The Live Album and last year's No. 2 Live Dinner, and all are on well-respected indie folk/bluegrass label Sugar Hill. (The label also reissued his first album, 1984's No Kinda Dancer, in 1995.) What you will find on all six albums are songs that catch like flypaper, songs that blend a mix of exuberance and loneliness as fundamental to Texans as the words `y'all' and `fixin' to.' And in Texas, the only state that matters, his potent live shows are second only to Willie Nelson's for inspiring native pride and shitkicking zeal. Keen may be the only man alive who can set frat boys stomping and hollering to a Terry Allen song. And to borrow a phrase from Steve Earle, the man whose advice sent Keen to Nashville all those years ago, he ain't ever satisfied.

That may just change with the release of Keen's Arista Austin debut, Picnic, which bears about as much resemblance to his previous output as a billboard does to a hand-lettered window sign. John Keane's crisp, spitshine production lets Keen expand sonically while remaining locked in focus with the song and point of view. Picnic is every inch a major label record, a Texas cousin to R.E.M.'s Out of Time. Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies (see sidebar), who recommended Keane to Keen, shows up on five of the album's 10 songs, including the first single "Over the Waterfall," and the closer, "Then Came Lo Mein," a song Keen wrote about those fateful final days in Music City. Keen, who's lived in tiny Bandera since he up and left Nashville, could never completely abandon his roadhouse past -- nor does he want to -- but Picnic is ample evidence that he's not about to let his past keep him from growing as an artist, songwriter, or performer.

"I felt like I was kind of spent on the use of Southwest imagery, and the bluegrassy, country sound," Keen says late one rainy spring afternoon at the converted house in downtown Bandera, where his Edge Management and The Robert Earl Show fan club share office space with his realtor father-in-law. "I got through Bigger Piece of Sky and Gringo Honeymoon and I felt like I had used a lot of that imagery, and I had worked on those kind of plots and storylines and stuff, and I wanted to get out of it. I needed to, because I was starting to rewrite those same songs over and over. I feel like I'm in this deal for life, and my opportunity to get anywhere as a writer has to do with me continuing to try to grow as a writer, not finding the magic moment and then keep recreating it."

He's no Pat Boone, though, veering off in some alien musical direction for inexplicable reasons. Named after that fateful Fourth of July where his car burned up, his date left him, and he met Willie Nelson (on the way to go "jam with Leon Russell"), Picnic is still every inch a Robert Earl Keen album, full of lovers, loners, losers, and the occasional psycho or two. "Undone" and "Shades of Gray" are as edgy and disturbing as Bigger Piece of Sky's Nick Cave-worthy "Blow You Away," "Whenever Kindness Fails," and "Here in Arkansas." "Over the Waterfall," "Oh Rosie," "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight," and "Then Came Lo Mein" are all, in one way or another, as eloquent, tender, and specific as Gringo Honeymoon's "I'm Comin' Home" and Bigger Piece of Sky's "Night Right For Love." And for anthems along the lines of "Corpus Christi Bay" and "The Road Goes on Forever," there's Keen's "Runnin' With the Night," James McMurtry's "Levelland," and Dave Alvin's "Fourth of July."
Not much funny, ha-ha
"Five Pound Bass" or "Copenhagen" humor here, but sharp ironies, implications, and plenty of dancing images abound -- something Keen was hoping for.

"The nature of my writing is more of a narrative: Build up the story, have some subtext and some subplot, imply some endings -- and imply some different things for different characters in the story -- and build characterization just like you'd build a good short story," says Keen, who graduated from Texas A&M University in 1980 with a degree in English. "This time I wanted to let the listener interpret more than before. I was trying to be a lot looser with my narrative. I dropped out a lot of the standard exposition and just used a lot more imagery, consciously thinking, `I need more images and less storylines here.'

"It was really tough for me," he continues. "I'm extremely anal about making sure that the story comes across exactly how I want it to. I want it to go from my brain to the listener's brain and project those exact same pictures from my brain to their brain. I wanted to grab all the most important images and hope that they meant something to somebody."

Keen takes his images where he can get them. "I started figuring out early that I wanted to do something that I did well," he says. "And I couldn't think of many things I did well. I couldn't even mow the lawn worth a damn. I never was a good mechanic. I'm not a good carpenter. I can draw a picture, but I'm not an artist by any means. But I can rhyme words and put together stories. They always had a week in school where you would write poems. It would usually be in the spring -- `art week' or `poem week.' When that time of the year came, man, all of a sudden my stuff's on the bulletin board. So I knew that was what I could do."

Keen had planned to study animal science at A&M until he discovered how much math and chemistry was involved. Since he liked to read, he switched to English. He also started tinkering with an old beat-up guitar he dragged to College Station. "I found out there was no supervision in college, and I could spend all my time watching TV," he says. "To sort of break the monotony of TV, I started learning guitar. As soon as I started, I thought, `Hey, I can kind of put these words together with these chords here.'" The next step took him, his guitar, and his songs down to an open mike night at a small, local bar. "I went down there, got up on stage, and went, `Man, this is just as easy as eating. I can do this!' I'm playin' along, playin' my little songs, and I wasn't nervous. I was nervous goin' there, and gettin' up, but once I was there, it was just, `This is what I'm supposed to do.' It really did make all the sense in the world to me."

After graduation, he knocked around Austin for a few months, opening shows for Earle, Nanci Griffith, and Townes Van Zandt, while also playing "beer joints and places I could drag my P.A. I played for tips, half-price dinners, all that sort of stuff." Despite the good company and good times, which frequently meant two or three hours of sleep a night, Keen says his time in Austin didn't teach him much about what he wanted to learn: "I didn't learn a damn thing about writing a song." So on Earle's advice, at the end of 1980, Keen moved to Nashville, where it got worse.

"I lived in Nashville almost two years, and tried to write straightforward country songs, and they just sounded like crap," says Keen. "They were just terrible, terrible, contrived junk that I knew nothing about and cared nothing about, really, and it wasn't my life. It wasn't what flowed from me. I couldn't sit down and just whip it out. I could chisel it out and get a headache trying to write a song. When you get a headache trying to write a song, you're working on the wrong song. I realized, `Okay, if I can't do this, then I'm going to work on the kind of songs that I write, the kind of songs that I enjoy.'"

After moving back to Texas, Keen hooked up with a booking agent who came on board saying, "Anybody who wants it as bad as you, I guess I've got to help," booking him on tours with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. "I would play for 30 minutes, then Townes would play for 45 minutes, and then Guy would play for like 10 hours," recalls Keen. "Guy always played a long time." Afterwards, Keen began touring on his own and it was about this time he started noticing the gigs close to home were getting a little loud and boisterous. "All of a sudden we're playing Gruene Hall, 600 people," he says. "I was trying to do that with me and my friend Duckworth, and nobody could hear us. Nobody would listen while I was trying to tell a story so I said, `Man, we need more stuff.'

Keen's current band -- fiddler Bryan Duckworth (with whom he roomed at A&M and always introduces as "my best friend from the third grade"), guitarist Rich Brotherton, drummer Mark Patterson, and bassist Bill Whitbeck -- who joined him in the studio for the first time on Picnic, grew out of this necessity. It became even more of a necessity when Keen began attracting Texas college Greeks by the Explorer-load -- something that took Keen completely by surprise. It was drummer Patterson who explained the meaning of the mysterious phrase "Rowdy Crowd".

"He goes, `The Rowdy Crowd is a euphemism for frat guys,'" says Keen. "I went `Naw.' He goes, `Yeah, man, everybody knows that.' I said, `Well, I didn't know that. Where are the frat guys?' `You know, the guys with the caps and stuff.' I was just as stupid about that as I was when I went to Nashville and found my songs could go on the radio just like everybody else's. I was just totally oblivious to the fact that all these young guys with the caps and stuff were in fraternities. I wasn't in a fraternity and I don't know what it's about. Man, I tell you, if they like the music, then more power to 'em. In general, they're always really nice and they're loud and I want people to have a good time."

Keen knows it's this crowd that makes up a good portion of his fanbase, and has a bursting merchandise mart to prove it, though he admits some of the `Rowdy Crowd' might not care for Picnic as much as they would hearing "The Road Goes on Forever" or "Copenhagen" for the umpteenth time. "If they like it, man, I'm glad," he says. "If they don't like it, I still made a record I'm proud of." Nevertheless, Keen admits the frat-boy associations sometimes hold him back from doing something he enjoys most: taking his music to new audiences.

"I would love to go out with Wilco or Son Volt," he says. "I think it would be a great pairing, although I heard it through the grapevine from Wilco's management that they didn't really want to do anything with me because of the Rowdy Crowd. So I'm going, `Wait a minute. You guys have got to have the Rowdy Crowd coming to see you, because they're not all the same music listeners.' We'll see. I'm always kind of pushing for that, trying to find a new space to play.

"I used to just eat it up to open up for somebody and have my 30 minutes, my six or seven best songs, and walk out there and people go, `Who's this guy? Man this guy's great!'" explains Keen. "It's really exciting. Now, it's like people come to see us, and we gotta be great, and I want to be great, but I'm not selling them on anything. I'm trying to live up to their expectations. I'm not walking into a whole brand new bunch of people going, `Who the hell is this person?' That's a great thing. That's a really good thing to be able to do that, because that's where I started."

In a way, Picnic puts Keen right back where he started. In College Station with a beat-up guitar and a handful of songs, in Austin with a day job and a nighttime gig, in Nashville dreaming of a record deal, playing Willie's picnic to thousands of screaming fans (frat and non-frat alike), even settled in Bandera with wife Kathleen and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Clara, Keen is still the restless drifter of so many of his songs. He's willing to reinvent himself as many times as it takes to make him happy, and he does it by never straying very far from something he learned a long time ago: always look for one more image.

"I remember a quote from Sherwood Anderson, who told William Faulkner that you can get everything you need to know out of your own backyard," says Keen. "I really try to stick with the things that are real close to me, or images that seem to have some kind of point. They seem to really stick in my head and I can't even tell you why. I just don't forget 'em. It might be some guy standing on the corner smoking a cigarette, or it might be an old junk car. You start playing, and like an Artesia well or something, it just starts comin' out, and all of a sudden you realize you've locked into that image at some time and it's comin' out, and there's a reason. I always feel like that's the reason, that this is meant for the song."

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