Robert Earl Keen
Inside REK's inner sanctum, the "Scriptorium"
Some 20 miles outside Kerrville, Robert Earl Keen's Rosetta Ranch spreads serenely across the West Texas landscape. There's little movement or activity on the 500 acres these days, just deer skipping wild and three horses patrolling along the fences.
"I'm not a nut for a horse at all," confesses Keen as he feeds them in the early January chill. "My oldest daughter loves horses, though, and she still comes out here and rides. Otherwise I'd get rid of 'em."
From atop a nearby plateau, a small stone building surveys the property. The Texas Hill Country stretches endlessly into the distance, Bandera beyond the rising ridge, and at night, the faint lights of San Antonio can be seen far to the southeast.
Inside the one-room house there's a sparse essentialness. A stiff, jailhouse-style bed hangs from chains in the wall, and wrought iron rings of western chandeliers provide a dim light that shines off a Terry Allen painting on the opposite wall. With the heavy wooden doors flung wide, an easy breeze fills the room.
The "Scriptorium" serves as Keen's refuge from the road and his writing sanctuary. For days at a stretch, he'll hole up on the ranch immersed in solitude.
"It takes about two days to just calm down and not be around people," he says. "But then you find a space that's not available to you just walking around in the world. I don't have a TV, and I turn off my phone. I have a little fridge here with tons of deer sausage, and I get some white bread and tortillas."
Keen picks up his guitar, revealing a 9mm Beretta pistol stowed in the case, and sits at the writing desk strumming chords. A black-and-white photo of Willie Nelson onstage in the Seventies hangs behind him, and a poster of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood stares coldly over his shoulder. He admits to an obsession with the film, so much so that his cowboy hat was custom made in replica of Lewis' character's, and he's built a screened enclosure on the ranch he calls the Daniel Plainview field office.
"Everybody says I'm very cinematic, and when I sing songs, I see the exact same pictures in my head every time," muses Keen. "And I think in visual terms when I write songs. I think about how someone is sitting down or walking out a door or getting in their car. I don't write a great emotional song. That's good and bad, but I prefer working with the narrative and visual part of it."
Keen's songs have become Texas canon, known for indelibly drawn characters and tension-strafed narratives wrapped in perfect melodies across easy rolling rhythms. From the poignant moments in "Not a Drop of Rain" and "Feelin' Good Again," epic calling cards such as "The Road Goes On Forever," and detailed portraits of "Corpus Christi Bay" and "Merry Christmas From the Family," no artist in the past two decades has defined Lone Star country music more than Robert Earl Keen.
Still, Keen bristles against the regional label. Having turned 59 this month, he looks ahead with restless ambition. His success spurs away from traditional country, and he's defined a career as an industry outsider. Now, he's challenging himself in new directions.
With the folding of Lost Highway, his label of the past decade, Keen's new set of bluegrass standards, Happy Prisoner, arrives Feb. 10 on Dualtone. He's also begun cowriting with top Nashville songwriters as he pushes to score a legitimate hit. A songwriter looking at 60, he's determined to not let his career or craft linger.
Keen steps outside the Scriptorium and streams a wad of Copenhagen into the fire pit. His thick graying hair sprawls out from beneath his hat, and he squints into the high afternoon sunlight. Whatever other obligations are pushing Keen, they bray miles away from the clear Hill Country horizon.
"I'm an introvert by nature, and very much so," he says. "And in general, writing works with that quiet solitude nature. My creativity is a big part of keeping me sane. Writing songs just makes me feel better about being on the Earth."
Keen came to music relatively late, not picking up his sister's abandoned, gut-string guitar until he was in his late teens. During his last summer in Houston before college, he began to take songwriting seriously.
"My parents were historically and famously cheap, but in some weird way, my mom thought I needed a really good guitar," he laughs. "So she bought me this D-35 Martin guitar, and that's what I played for years. When I brought it home, my dad said, 'Well goddamn, that cost so much I hope you bury me in the case so at least we'll get some money out of it.'"
At Texas A&M, Keen fell in with a more sympathetic cohort. His house close to campus became an epicenter of music for his likeminded friends, including another young Houston songwriter named Lyle Lovett. Those college years were famously documented in the pair's "The Front Porch Song," which both recorded on their debut LPs, though Keen's uproariously explicated version on his The Live Album remains the definitive treatment.
"We created this kind of haphazard band called the Front Porch Boys where we'd play bluegrass, country, string band, and fiddle tunes," recalls Keen. "That's also when I started listening to Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and Jimmy Buffett, and of course I was a huge fan of Willie. I figured out I wanted to write songs like that, so when I realized that we didn't really sound as much like a bluegrass band as much as we wanted to, I suggested we start writing our own songs."
When he graduated in 1980, Keen immediately set his mark on Austin's fertile music scene, although he discovered that the redneck rock mecca he'd visited on a regular basis in college had turned its attention to blues. He took a job with the Railroad Commission, while carving out a modern folk scene alongside Lucinda Williams, Mandy Mercier, Eric Taylor, and Nanci Griffith. He won "Best New Songwriter" at the 1983 Kerrville Folk Festival, and with 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer took home "Best Songwriter" at the Chronicle's Austin Music Awards.
"The double-edged sword about Austin is that you can really play almost every night, and play for years and years. And you can make a decent living and have a lot of friends and have a pretty good time. But that same luxury that you're afforded by not having to get outside of town keeps you from getting outside of town and finding out what else there is out there," says Keen. "From the very beginning, when I first started playing, I realized I needed to get out. There was no valor in being a hero in your own backyard."
Steve Earle suggested he move to Nashville.
Through pure coincidence, Keen arrived in Music City the same week of 1984 that Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith also moved there. Yet unlike previous Texas songwriters that established their own expat scenes in Nashville (revisit "We Were From Texas," July 19, 2013), Keen found himself mostly on his own.
"That was when I realized that your destiny isn't actually tied to someone else, that it may be completely tethered to them for a little while and then completely cut loose," he says. In Austin, "you feel like you're in this fraternity and sorority of people that are moving up and doing this thing. You're all high-fiving and stuff, but then you get in a situation where there's actually an industry like Nashville or L.A. Everybody went off on their own, and it was a real life lesson."
Keen took temporary jobs and pitched his songs down Music Row, but made little headway. He knew any success as a songwriter in Nashville took time, but he struggled with having to compartmentalize his goals. He stopped performing altogether.
"I was trying too hard when I was in Nashville," he admits now. "I was trying to write what I thought were hit songs, and they were terrible. I'd demo them, and pitch them, and I knew they were terrible, but I was just trying to find some kind of balance between what I did naturally and what sounded good to people that wanted to put me on country radio.
"But let me say this: I am a champion of Nashville," he continues. "Nashville has a place in the world, and I would say a huge part of my success is that the time I was there, I made some great friends. And I've always known what Nashville is about. I realize it can be really hard on people and you can get your expectations all twisted, but there are a lot of things there about the music business that are indelible. This is what you have to do to survive."
After another four years, with only scraps of success in sight, Keen's in-laws offered his wife Kathleen a job back home in Texas. Feeling out of options and time, Keen moved to Bandera with little notion of how to move his career forward.
"I had never really been to Bandera, and came down here on a day when it was cold, 30-mile-per-hour wind, all blue sky, and no sun at all. There were about two cars parked on all of Main Street and tin cans bumping down the middle of the road. I thought, 'I have come to the end of my life,'" Keen remembers. "I was really sunk. You know, it kicked my ass. I was really just devastated that I had failed, and I couldn't really get a grip on it.
"I just sat with my head in my hands for about five or six months."
A Bigger Piece of Sky
When Keen regained his bearings, he found inspiration in the wide West Texas expanses and its populace. Songs like "Mariano" and "Maria" demonstrated a deeper empathy for his characters, while "The Road Goes On Forever" took his natural storytelling to new heights.
Keen signed to Sugar Hill and released West Textures in 1989, followed by A Bigger Piece of Sky and Gringo Honeymoon in the early Nineties. He was achieving regional acclaim, and soon made the major label jump in signing with Arista.
"Somewhere in '95, we had this huge lift of people coming to the shows," says Keen. "And then we put out the live record, No. 2 Live Dinner at Floore's, and that's when it really took off. I gave that record to Barry Poss at Sugar Hill as kind of a parting gift when we moved over to Arista, because I really felt like he'd always been my friend in the record business.
"Barry put it out before the Arista record came out, and it blew up."
The same couldn't be said for Keen's major label debut. The cover for 1997's Picnic presented a photo of Keen's car famously in flames outside of Willie's Nelson's 1974 Fourth of July Picnic. The image proved a harbinger for Keen's return to the industry.
"I didn't know what I was getting into," he admits. "I was back up there dealing with Nashville, and I was trying to be a team player, but they were pushing these producers on me that I just didn't like personally. They were trying to market me as alt-rock or adult contemporary. They knew I wasn't commercial country, but Americana wasn't a real thing to them yet."
Picnic's production took Keen away from his roots, and though the following year's Walking Distance returned more to form, it too gained little traction. After Arista, Keen took his career more in hand, self-managing and hiring his own support team. He was the first artist signed to Lost Highway for 2001's Gravitational Forces, and the label's last with 2011's Ready for Confetti. Most importantly, Keen began setting up his career on his own terms.
"I clash with the record companies and publishing companies about the same things I did 20 years ago, but at the same time, I'm always trying to figure out how to be a little more a part of the industry, because I believe that's part of my longevity," he says. "I don't know if I'll ever make another level, but I don't worry about it as much as I used to. I keep doing what I'm doing and if something happens that way, then great. I like playing music, and I have a really good career."
The Road Goes On Forever
Back at his office in a small strip mall just off the main drag in Kerrville, Keen coordinates an upcoming tour. He's fresh off a weeklong hunting trip in Hebbronville outside of Laredo, and chugs a Red Bull as he scouts string players to join his band for the bluegrass repertoire of Happy Prisoner.
The bluegrass sessions are at once a turn and return for Keen. The set of traditional songs hearken back to his earliest bands in College Station (recalled with typical Keen humor on early live cut "The Bluegrass Widow"), yet strikes incongruently with his own songwriting trajectory.
"I think my best stuff always comes from my own gut feeling about where to go," he offers. "The place where I was with Happy Prisoner is that I don't really have any obligation to anything here, so I'm going to just do what I want to do. Those have certainly been my best experiences musically."
Likewise, proudly maintaining the same band over the past two decades and building his own business team afford Keen the opportunity to take more risks and pursue new paths. Of late, he's collaborated with hit Nashville songwriters like Leslie Satcher, Donny Lowery, and Liz Rose, best known for her work with Taylor Swift. There's a sense of popular redemption still unfulfilled for Keen.
"The difference between this experience now and back then is that I'm writing with really good writers," he explains. "I've had a great time doing that, and it's been my new passion. And this is totally selfish, but I've written all of these songs, had a few cuts here and there, but I've never had a hit for me or for anyone else. And I want to be a part of a real hit. I want to be part of the music industry in that way. I would say really I'm still an outsider trying to get inside."
As for new songs already being crafted for his next LP, Keen aims to cut closer to the bone and be more personal.
"I have this yearning to be more plainspoken about what I'm saying," he admits. "I have a knack for making colorful images, and that's what I've done for a long time. Like 'Not a Drop of Rain' is a song that's really revealing and came out of a really hard time I was having. To me, that song holds up. It has a great narrative and great color, but I'm standing there naked in the whole thing. I was somewhat protective about who I was, but my vague concept is to be very clear and very plaintive about my life. That's my thought. That's what's propelling me."
For all his success, Keen's new creative directions, including Happy Prisoner, are as much about refueling his passion as fighting restlessness stemming from having had the reins finally loosened.
"I needed to find something else that made me really love music," he says. "You do the road as much as I do and travel, and it wears you down. You just get tired. So I needed something. But to go along and do what I've done, and then to keep doing it, you have to think about how you document your career. I would like people to think that I was a songwriter that had a pretty broad spectrum of songs and that I was somewhat fearless about how I went about my creativity."