Lauded as one of Texas's premier singer-songwriters, and a 2012 inductee into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame, Robert Earl Keen has released eighteen albums over the course of his career. His latest, 2015's Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, was embraced by fans and critics alike. The beloved troubadour will be returning to New York City on April 7th for a night at Irving Plaza [rescheduled from January 23rd due to the blizzard]. In advance of the show, Keen kindly took the time to talk about the album, the ninety second song and more.
You’ve played NYC many times, at different venues. Is a good music crowd a good music crowd or does NYC differ in any way?
Well, New York is always full of people who are really excited to be there. I mean, maybe it’s because there’s a little more struggle to get to where you’re going at night or maybe there’s a lot of people who come to the show that don’t live in the city. But it’s always really plugged in, electric. They’re always very happy to be there.
We're definitely very enthusiastic when good music comes our way.
Congrats on the success of Happy Prisoner. I read in an article where you said making the record was a rejuvenating adventure for your own work. How so?
Absolutely. The great thing about making that record was that we went into the studio and played these songs that really everybody knew one way or another, mostly they were songs from childhood. We went in there and it all fell together. I didn’t have to worry about the creative process like I normally do when I write songs. All I had to do was worry that I was making the right choices for the songs themselves....and worry about my singing, which I rarely do. I never considered myself a great singer, so I just sing, but this one I really enjoyed thinking about how to sing these songs and the way that I project. I got a ton out of this record; it turned out to be a real sort of shot in the arm as far as how to do music.
The album ended up on many a “Best Of” list. After many albums and years in the business is that particularly gratifying since you had never done a bluegrass record?
Well you know, you always like to be recognized. I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t. I really like it because it’s hard to really gauge your success in the record business these days. Before 2005 you could count how many records you sold and now you count physical sales, then downloads and it’s just not the same. It’s not as easy to know exactly how well you did with a record and so when you wind up on some best of lists and get a lot of great reviews it’s really gratifying.
In addition to much success in Texas and beyond, you continue to tour the U.S and maintain a devoted fan base, so is a commercial t40 hit something that appeals to you, if it ever has?
Well, I never thought much about it, but lately what I’ve been doing is going to Nashville every three months or so to write with people who are in the business of songwriting in an effort to do exactly that. I’ll be the first one to say I think my writing is very high quality writing. I have a great sense of melody, I have a great sense of format and message and I don’t think there’s anything I couldn’t write about if I wanted to. But, it occurred to me a few years ago that I really wasn’t represented in the real music business; I’m represented by myself, but I feel like that’s a vanity press thing, so I am working with people in the business to write songs that one would call more commercial. That being said, when I go in to write with somebody I don’t say 'Let’s write a commercial song', I just say 'Let’s write a song'; it’s more likely to be commercial though because that’s their goal, they’re driven that way.
Writing with different people has not only been a lot of fun, but it has given me a lot of inspiration in many ways. It has given me some good ideas and really has given me a real clue as to what is going on and how people feel about the music being made, particularly in that city and in the country music world. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about what’s happened to country music. Music always changes every generation, maybe every thirty years it changes dramatically, and it’s changed dramatically and there’s a lot of people who are unhappy with it, but I’m kinda like let me in the door I’m happy to figure out what’s going on.
What’s coming out of Nashville has certainly changed. What about in Texas, has the scene changed in 20 years?
Well, Texas has become this outpost of its own style of writing and its own interesting culture - what people have dubbed Texas Country or Red Dirt or whatever else they call it. There’s really no place else in the country like that, maybe the closest thing is like the Bahamas and island music, so it is cool in that way. It’s very, very popular and done very well. There’s some really talented people running around. I'm afraid that they’re not exactly embraced by any national music purveyor, but things always change.
Are you working on your next album & if so what can one expect?
Well as of now, I’m working on abbreviated songs that are less than two minutes long; songs for the short attention span culture. I’ve played on the road for years and years and by and large my audience is a live audience and I get to watch people really anticipate what I’m doing. But I get up there and play and halfway through the song people are pulling out their phones, checking messages and things like that (laughing). So if that’s the response, I’ll write these songs that last about ninety seconds.
Can you fit a story song into ninety seconds?
Ah, you’d be surprised (laughing). It started kind of as a joke, but I’ve kept doing it and I sort of enjoy it. The thing about this is that there would have to be a surprise factor you know, like I wouldn’t want to go out and try all these songs out on audience and then throw them out there for the world [on a record].
Some artists have been outspoken regarding use of cell phones during a show, even stopping shows when people start paying more attention to their phones than what’s happening in front of them. Have you done anything like that?
Nah, you know I know what I do. I’m there for entertainment; it’s my job to entertain and if I’m not, I’m figuring it out. So here’s my answer: here’s a song that lasts ninety seconds and I dare you to do something in that ninety seconds other than listen to this song.
Come out to hear (and listen) to REK on April 7th.
When: April 7th
Where: Irving Plaza NYC