On his way to a performance in Atlanta, singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen took a few minutes to discuss his career, new album and watching his car burn up at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July celebration. The Americana troubadour is playing Pensacola June 28.
IN: This latest album, “Ready for Confetti,” what is that about? It seems like you’re dealing with some pretty heavy stuff, life and death and everything in between.
KEEN: Well, I have that nature when I make a record. All I can tell you, what I went into “Ready for Confetti” with and what I tried to keep going throughout all the songs, I wanted it to be a lot more melodic than I normally have been and I wanted to have a lot of voices. Just a lot more rhythm to it. So I worked real hard on writing sort of toe-tapping numbers. Even if they were slow, they had sort of a groove to ’em. I worked a little harder on that. My lyrics have always been the thing that made me do this in the first place. I’ve always felt like I’m good at—have a talent for—the lyrics side of things. Music has always been the part that I’ve struggled with. The lyrics, though, it’s still just real typical my kind of thing—like you say, you know, “life, death and everything in between.”
IN: You went to Nashville, Tenn. and then left Nashville, Tenn. That’s kind of indicative of your career. You are successful on the outside of the mainstream.
KEEN: I’ve really kind of done everything I could to just survive. I never wanted to do anything but play music—the whole idea was just to always have another gig lined up when this one’s done. It was. But my whole foray into Nashville, Tenn. was actually really stupid or naive or something. I thought I would absorb what was going on or that people would come to me and I did neither. Neither of those things happened at all. I really didn’t figure out what made a great hit country song and nobody was interested in what I was selling, so I finally packed up and moved away. As far as, like, “Was it an ah-ha moment?” or “Did I have some kind of vision?” None of those things really applied.
IN: Which car is yours on the front of the “Picnic” album?
KEEN: My car is the Chevrolet, it’s like a ‘70—1970 Chevrolet. That’s the one that burnt up.
IN: Can you tell me about that?
KEEN: Yeah, I went to Willie Nelson’s picnic in 1974 and had a girl with me and it was like a big thing for me. It was like a weekend date, you know. I was like, “whoa, here we go.” So I went out there and it was a big, huge, like Woodstock sort of thing, free for all—naked people running around, people smoking joints everywhere. Now, I did just jump right into that one and, you know, I fit right in there. It worked out real well for me until the fields behind where the parking lot was caught on fire and burnt up my, it burnt up the car and you could see it from—it was in the middle of a big, giant race speedway, and you could see the huge plumes of smoke behind the speedway curb. We didn’t know what it was, and then they got on the speakers and said, “We’ve got a fire in the parking lot.” And the first license plate they named was mine. I nearly fell over. I ran up there and, of course, my car is burnt up. And then the girl took off with some other guy. I tried to hitchhike home in the middle of the night, and I was drunk and high and the whole deal. It was crazy.
IN: And you used to be neighbors with Lyle Lovett?
KEEN: We both went to Texas A&M at the same time and he was in the journalism curriculum and I was in the English curriculum, and we got to be friends over music because we used to hang out on his porch and play music all time. He would ride his bicycle by and he stopped and we got to be pals and he was the first guy I ever knew that had, like, a four-track recorder and actually recorded his own voice. We sat around and talked about nothing mainly for hours and hours and hours and then, because we had so many classes in common, we’d be in the same classes. So, for two or three years there we were doing exactly the same thing and we were, you know, playing music, talking about girls, going to these, you know, English classes or writing classes. I don’t know how much—I know he influenced me a great deal—I don’t know how much I influenced him. I know it’s kind of strange we both really have a life-long career in music.
IN: Do you ever perform together these days?
KEEN: Every once in a while. We were both inducted in this Texas Songwriter Hall of Fame in March and we got these awards and all that kind of stuff and then got on the stage and played some songs. Pretty cool.
IN: Sounds like it.
ROBERT EARL KEEN
WHAT: Robert Earl Keen with The White Buffalo
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 28
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox