Born in Houston in 1956, Keen made his recording debut with 1984‘s No Kinda Dancer full-length, which he cut for around $4,500. No Kinda Dancer contained some of Keen’s early songs — he had won a 1983 songwriting award at Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival — as well as “The Front Porch Song,” which he had written with fellow Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett during their days at Texas A&M University. His career picked up steam with 1989‘s West Textures, a record that contained his now-famous “The Road Goes on Forever,” one of Keen’s celebrated crime-spree narratives.
In a career arc typical of singer-songwriters and Americana artists, this serviceable but hardly compelling vocalist kept writing good songs, and eventually made records that employed more sophisticated production techniques. After doing a two-year stint in Nashville that helped him professionally, if not artistically — as Keen tells me, he never quite got the knack of writing in the Music City manner, though he’s managed to get some nice cuts by other artists along the way — he returned to Texas.
His 1997 full-length, Picnic, was his major-label debut, and it stands as one of his most consistent records. “Shades of Gray” mentions homegrown marijuana, and the song tells the tale of a man who steals Charolais heifers and sells them for $900. He cashes the check, which he should not have done. “Then Came Lo Mein” details a nervous breakdown set against a backdrop of noodles and hot mustard that spills on the floor.
Keen has continued to release excellent records — I like 2011‘s Ready for Confetti, which contains “Paint the Town Beige,” a song about a self-styled desperado who misses the good old days. Confetti was produced by Lloyd Maines, who also helmed Keen’s forthcoming Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, set for release next February. Joining Keen on Happy Prisoner are his band, who has played with him for two decades, and a slew of guest musicians: banjo player Danny Barnes, mandolin player Kym Warner, fiddler Sara Watkins and singers Natalie Maines, Peter Rowan and Lyle Lovett.
I caught up with Keen at home in Kerrville, and he sounded energized by his latest project, which seems to have allowed him to take bluegrass into realms that only a self-directed songwriter could take it. He’ll be in Nashville on Saturday to play a show at Musicians Corner.
Robert, it’s good to catch up with you today. I understand you’ll be playing at Musicians Corner here in town. Will you be performing with your full band?
Yes, I travel, I would say, 98 percent of the time with a full band. I made that decision and that commitment 20 years ago, and consequently, we just stay together and keep knockin’ those honky-tonks down. [Keen’s band includes guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel guitarist Marty Muse.]
I hear that you’ve recorded a new full-length.
It’s done, and it will come out in February on Dualtone. It’s a bluegrass record — traditional bluegrass. I didn’t write any of the songs, and we put it together with my band. Lyle [Lovett] sang on a song, and Peter Rowan sang on a song, and Natalie Maines sang “The Wayfaring Stranger” with me. Kym Warner played the mandolin, and Sara Watkins played fiddle. Danny Barnes played the banjo. So it’s all over the map — it’s Flatt and Scruggs, some “traditional, arranged-by,” you know, that kind of thing. The Stanley Brothers, [John] Hartford — a life-long love of bluegrass. I thought, you know, if I don’t do this now, I’m never gonna do it.
Did you go in and rearrange any of the songs, mess around with them?
Yeah, there’s some moving around and stuff. We did “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” a Flatt and Scruggs song, and we had a huge amount of fun with that. It’s pretty foot-stompin’ and hollerin’ kind of stuff. We did “Poor Ellen Smith” and we made it extremely soulful, and added a few suspended chords that I thought were conducive with the lyrics. There was some movement around, you know, sometimes. Like The Stanley Brothers’ “The White Dove,” we did that just solid straight. I’m not out to re-invent the format. I love to do that, but at the same time, the risk is you just don’t do the song justice. I think in terms of what works for the song, just like I do with my own songs: “Hey, this is really good, and this would be nice and sparse. And we’re gonna have this one really in your face.” It’s a great record — it sounds great.
Did the title come from one of the songs you selected?
No, my wife and my family used to wear these crazy pajamas that had horizontal stripes, and we called them the “happy prisoners.” I was working on this title, and thinking, “You know, I want something that is unique, and sounds original.” But at the same time, I wanted something that reflected how I feel about bluegrass. I’ve been listening to it forever, I love it, and I feel I’m somewhat locked into it. Even my own songs sometimes are formatted — not instrument-wise — but verse-chorus-wise, like that. So I feel like I’m necessarily a happy prisoner of bluegrass.
In a lot of Americana music, I get the sense that record-making and songwriting are sort of distinct from each other. Has your approach to making records changed over the years?
Yeah, absolutely. When I started out, I was totally frightened of the studio, and I didn’t feel very confident about what I could contribute, other than the song. I had my own ideas, but over the years, now I feel like I could bring in an orchestra and direct 'em and what they’re doing. I also have found I have a great relationship with Lloyd Maines, who produced this, and who produced the last two records and a record several years ago [1996‘s No. 2 Live Dinner]. Lloyd and I have been friends, but more than that, he’s been my music mentor. Because of his demeanor, he’s a great, great people person. I enjoy the process, and now I look at it as part of the entire process. I used to just think, “OK, I wrote this song — here’s the song, here’s the lyric. Yeah, I’d like to hear this and that on it.” But now I think of it as part of the palette, you know. It completes the entire creative process, and I’m not afraid of it anymore. I really enjoy the studio.
Reading some pieces from the late ‘90s, I get the sense that your 1997 Picnic record was kind of a watershed in your career — your major-label debut. Is that how you see that record, as a turning point?
Yeah, in the first place, I worked with [producer] John Keane on that, and I went to Athens, Ga., to make it, and I had made records either in Texas or I had made them in Nashville, up to that point. So I had to move away from home and stay there for a month at a time, and there was a lot of that label-coming-down-to-listen-to-what’s-going-on. Listen to the tracks. Of course, [Cowboy Junkies vocalist] Margo Timmins sang on that record, so there was a lot of effort in the setup. There was a tremendous lack of privacy about it, so, consequently, we forged ahead. But at the same time, I felt like I was a lot more on pins and needles at the time with that record. When I go back to it, it still somewhat sounds like me — an Americana record, that kind of record. At the time, it seemed like we were making a rock record. There was a lot of attention to things like drums, which I’d never paid much attention to whatsoever. I got pretty cranked up about the whole thing. In retrospect, the record sounds beautiful. A lot of fans will tell you that that’s their favorite record — mostly fans who are more rock or pop guys, who like that kind of music, and they like me, but they don’t think about country music much. So the answer is, yes, I feel like it was a watershed thing. I was trying to do the best I could to be working in a bigger situation.
You came to Nashville in the mid-’80s. What was that experience like?
I came on June 18th of 1985. I was, you know, the classic dead broke, and drove a ‘63 Dodge Dart up there, and got a place, hung out, ran into other songwriters, and consequently, Lyle got a place in Nashville, and Nanci Griffith moved up. We all moved up there the same week, and it was from totally different experiences. I don’t know exactly what their influences were, but mine was, I ran into Steve Earle in Austin, and he told me I needed to move to Nashville. I’d really never given it a thought. But I was at a point in Austin where I wanted to do something bigger, or find something, find another avenue, so it just made sense. So I moved up there without any plan, as always, and started working and trying to write with people. I had more part-time jobs than I think anybody ever had in Nashville. I worked all these crazy jobs, and would come in and try to write — write with people. Met a lot of people. That experience there, although I wouldn’t say it was successful — I took a lot of hits, and I had a lot of doors closed in my face, or they never opened whatsoever — but that experience was what elevated me to a point where I kept it going, and my relationship with Nashville has made the difference in my whole life in music. Had I not done that, I don’t think I would have even been in music at this time. But the particular connection with what I’m considered to be — a songwriter — never really panned out. A lot of my other friends went on to be in the top tier of the songwriters, but that’s what they do — they write songs and they co-write and they get cuts. Occasionally I’ll get a cut and things like that, but that’s almost a different world to me.
Is there a difference between the kind of songs you write and the typical country song?
Well, what I’m always doing is coming from a very personal place, whether it be a journalistic-type narrative, where everything in a song happened to me and I’m putting it into song form. Then, in the other way that I write a song, it still comes from my personal experience. If it’s an emotional song, it’s still my perspective. A lot of times, the songs that are pitched and published, and that whole publishing machine, have a very strict format: Strict in the format of the song, in that it’s verse-chorus, verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, and there’s not much wriggle room. I’ve never been able to lock into that very well, and I don’t know why. “Merry Christmas From the Family,” a song people know me for, is a song I wrote because I was so frustrated with Christmas, and I was making up something to amuse myself. When I played it for somebody, they fell on the floor laughing, and I went, “Wow, that’s pretty good. I thought it was a joke.” So I’ve always been somewhat outside, and not exactly able to connect with what the classic thought is, or what the thought of the day is.
“Merry Christmas From the Family” is great — it’s a horrible experience every time I hear it, so I think you really did your job there. You’re also known for what I call your crime-spree songs, like “The Road Goes on Forever.” What attracts you to that side of human nature?
I kinda love that rough-and-rowdy. It has a lot of drama. I think if you’re gonna write a narrative, that it’s not about going down the subway and ordering a tuna sandwich. It excites me while I’m writing it, to kind of see all the pictures and the options that I can go with, how these characters move. It just pops up in my head like a movie. I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about how everybody’s in love all the time. I’ve been in love, and it’s a powerful experience. But it’s not all the firecrackers and things. I don’t know — it doesn’t sound honest to me.