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Monday September 1st 2014

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Web Extra: Robert Earl Keen Interview In Full

IN: So, you’re in Atlanta tonight, right?
KEEN: Yeah, we had a little bus breakdown, so we’re still on our way there. We usually get to a place around 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock. So, I guess we’re in rush-hour traffic right now, it doesn’t seem to be moving much.

IN: Atlanta rush-hour traffic?
KEEN: Yeah.

IN: That’s fun. You got your bus taken care of, though?
KEEN: I think so, we’re gonna have to check it again, I guess, tomorrow morning. So, I don’t know. But, you know what, I tell you what, Jeremy, I’ve been doing this a long time and I have not flipped and I have had very few bus problems.

IN: Cool.
KEEN: I’ve been pretty lucky on that end anyway.

IN: Well, I’m sure this will pan out for you, too.
KEEN: Yeah.

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, you know, I have that nature when I make a record, and I think about this a lot … [inaudible]. 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, and you know, just a lot more rhythm to it. So I worked real hard on writing sort of toe-tapping sort of numbers, even if they were slow, they had sort of a groove to them. I worked a little harder on that. My lyrics have always been the thing that, you know, made me do this in the first place. I’ve always felt like I’m good at—you know, have a talent for—the lyrics side of things. Music has always been the part that I’ve struggled with and when I first started … I was real timid about getting out there and trying something that didn’t seem to kind of … [inaudible] … you know a melody, you know, it had a kind of soaring melody or something like that, you know, I was a little afraid of hearing my own voice—“nah, I don’t like that”—over the years though I’ve kind of lost that. I’ve become a lot more interested in real kind of hummable melodies. So that’s what I was looking at when I was doing “Ready for Confetti.” 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. and that’s kind of indicative of your career, you’re kind of, you know, you are successful on the outside of the mainstream. Why is that advantageous? Or is it? I assume you like it.
KEEN: No, I’ve really kind of done everything I could to just survive. I never wanted to do anything but play music and I’ve done everything from, you know, from playing on little bitty labels to playing on major labels, you know I’ve been on giant stages, been on small stages, and 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. When I went to Nashville, it was about, I don’t know, 25 years ago and I thought that 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, you know, hit country song and nobody was interested in what I was selling, so I finally packed up and moved away, just kind of … I couldn’t play in Nashville. Nashville’s always been kind of a lousy place to … [inaudible] … you know, just even to play enough to pay the bills kind of place. It doesn’t pan out that way, so I moved away because I really missed playing and I like playing, I love to play, I still love to play, and as far as, like, “Was it an ah-ha moment?” or “Did I have some kind of vision?” None of those things really applied. I went to Nashville to get involved in the scene there and it just kind of never worked.

What did work though, however, was I made a lot of really good friends and I’ve had several things go on in Nashville all these years and have good relationships with all these people in the publishing world and in the major label world, and I know all the major label heads, I know all the BMI guys. I’ve got great friends in all these places and they have helped me be able to stay in the music business because I know how to figure out publishing contracts and record deals and all that stuff just from that experience, originally in Nashville, because I met so many people.

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 there, banks, and 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: That’s tough stuff. But it sounds like it’s probably good song fodder.
KEEN: Well, I tell you what, it worked out good, you know, on a story. And it was the first time—you know, I’ve met Willie Nelson about 10 times, and I know he doesn’t even know who I am really. But, the first time I met him … I could come up with a really good short story about meeting Willie Nelson and, you know, I have a story connected to him every time I met him, cause it’s always pretty much the same, “Hi,” shake hands and walk off. I don’t have any of those great “sit around with Willie and smoke pot” stories, but I have stories where I met him 10 different times, you know. That was the first time, so that was the beginning of a long line of meetings with Willie.

IN: And you used to be neighbors with Lyle Lovett, can you take us back there?
KEEN: Yeah, I—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 and 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. And I would go over to his house and listen to this, and he’d show me how to do these things. We just got to be friends, you know. We’re like friends like people would be friends, you know. 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. So, you know, it was a, I don’t know how much—I know he influenced me a great deal; I don’t know how much I influenced him. But I know that, I know it’s kind of strange we both really have a life-long career in music.

IN: Yeah, yeah. 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 we sat on the stage and played some songs, got on the stage and played some songs. Pretty cool.

IN: Sounds like it. You say you like playing the festivals, big places, small places. The  place you’re playing here is small theater-y size. Have you ever played here before?
KEEN: I think I’ve played there. Is it kind of a high-ceiling, rectangular room?

IN: Yeah.
KEEN: Yeah, I believe I have. I think I played there about a year and a half ago. I wanna say about a year and a half ago. We had a pretty good crowd. It’s pretty much just a bar, right. I mean—

IN: Right. Well, I call it a theater, just cause I like it but, yeah, it’s a bar.
KEEN: So, yeah. Ok. We’ve played there one time before. It works great. I thought it was fun. I try to go back to the places that I like and I scratch off the places that I don’t like. So, if I’m coming back to it, those are places I like.

IN: Cool. And, the people that saw you last time, can they expect something different this time?
KEEN: Yeah, we have—you know, I’ll tell, I don’t even know exactly, I probably could look it up and find out exactly what we played, but I don’t ever play the same shit twice. Ever. Every night I play I write a different set list. I hit the high spots a lot and play songs I think people will want to hear, but you know, I’ve got an extensive catalog of songs and we just—we try to work it to the room and make it work out. When I played there before I know that I did, maybe I had one, or a few songs from “Ready for Confetti” done, or worked up. But, you know, there’s a whole album’s worth of material that I … I’m not going to say that is what I am going to be playing, but I will be playing a lot from that record.

IN: Ok. Cool, man. Looking forward to hearing it.
KEEN: Well, thanks, man.