If you look up the word troubadour in Webster’s Dictionary, Robert Earl Keen’s picture should be there.
Keen is an Americana artist from Texas who has been singing and songwriting his way into the honky tonks and hearts of traditional country music fans, folk music fans and alternative country fans for almost 30 years.
After touring with the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and filming for PBS’ Austin City Limits show this summer, Keen has set out with his band on his own tour. He makes a stop in Boulder at Chautauqua Auditorium on Monday, August 30.
The CU Independent caught up with Keen to talk about his tour, songwriting advice and today’s music industry.
CU Independent: You’ve been in the business for about 30 years now. What should fans expect when they go see you on this tour?
Robert Earl Keen: One thing that you get from a band that’s been playing together this long is you get something different. I’ve never seen people play this well together before. And you know, we’ve played together for the better part of 15 years. It is kind of hard for me to describe that; it’s an overwhelming feeling. People always say how they’re astounded at how well we play together. One thing that you can expect is that we’re there to entertain people. It will be entertaining. We’re not going to show up just playing and turning our backs to the audience; it’s all about the fans, being up onstage and enjoying ourselves.
CUI: What has influenced your songwriting style the most and how has it evolved over the decades that you’ve been a songwriter?
REK: When I first started out I was always influenced by other forms of literature. Books, novels, short story writers. I always try to get that feeling into a very, very small package, a four or five minute song. I love the whole idea of a story evolving musically. When the audience is like, “Wow I can’t believe that’s what this song is really about.” That’s how I started out. Over the years I’ve become a better musician and I can tell what goes well with other instruments and other sounds and how can you make this more provocative musically. I’m at a point now where I just want to tell a real simple truth instead of a long story with a lot of angles. I just want to get a certain point across. My latest album—“The Rose Hotel”—a lot of those songs are really straight forward and I’m just trying to give a good musical feeling.
CUI: Speaking of “The Rose Hotel,” which came out last fall and is your latest album, are you working on anything new while you’re touring?
REK: Touring slows me down as far as writing goes. Years ago I just said, “No writing on the road,” but I’ve been touring for so long that I’ve come to an understanding of myself. Now I can usually write but I don’t have as much space or time to think things through. I don’t have quite as much time as I’d like to, but I’m working on a batch of songs; I’d love to take them into the studio and make a record. We just did an Austin City Limits taping, which is a PBS show, and it’ll come out this Fall. I’m working on a novel.
CUI: What’s the novel about?
REK: Well, it’s about a hard, straggle life in the East Texas oil fields.
CUI: That sounds like it comes from personal experience.
CUI: What’s your opinion about Nashville’s current commercial scene and what does it take be successful there right now?
REK: Well if you could write that book, you’d sell a million copies! How to be successful in Nashville? Everyone wants to be successful there. I’d be the last person to ask, really, about how to be successful in Nashville. Even when I was closer to the system—and I lived there for a couple years—I never really walked the walk and talked the talk. I kept doing what I do. As far as what it comes down to now, I think they’re really trying to get to as many folks as possible without the advantage of just one music stream. There are almost an infinite number of music streams and I think that music choices now are as individual as individuals can be. I can’t find three people who are listening to the exact same kind of music anymore because of all the choices out there. In the last five years, particularly, music has turned everyone into their own DJ. So, how do you get everyone to really listen to one song if everyone is their own DJ? It’s just a big huge question mark. So what Nashville is trying to do is find the broadest audience for the musicians that want to be a star. And best of luck to ‘em.
CUI: What advice would you give to developing artists who don’t want to follow the trend but still be successful?
REK: Well, I think you have to believe in yourself. Everyone that has that special gift for creativity and individuality needs to start with believing in themselves and not letting anyone rock that boat. The other thing is, you have to work harder than you’ve ever set out to work before. You have to totally dedicate your heart, your soul in this case, to music and songwriting. You need to learn everything you can about it and do it every chance you get.
CUI: What was it like opening for the Dave Matthews Band this summer?
REK: We’ve played with them for the past four years and done shows with them. There’s not a more gracious and kind human being than Dave Matthews. And it’s a real relief to run into someone who is in his position, who is such a star, who is just well-rounded and unique at the same time. But truly, a fine human being. That’s what I take away from it. I love his music, and I love being able to play with him. I was struck by his demeanor and kindness.
CUI: What’s on your iPod right now?
REK: I’m listening to some Albert King and some blues music, really. I’ve been listening to some Bob Marley. For some reason there are about four genres of music that I like to listen to that relaxes me. Now, I don’t think it inspires me so much. If I want to be inspired by music I listen to other songwriters, or maybe some hit new band. But in general, what I always listen to is blues, classical music, bluegrass and reggae. And I like them because, other than classical music, those other three are really simple forms of music. They just allow me to enjoy the music. I live and breath [music] every day, every minute, from the time I wake up in the morning ‘til the time I go to sleep. So, I don’t want to constantly challenge myself like, “how do you do this?” or “how do you make this sound?” So that’s why I listen to guys like Albert King, a blues guy, and Bob Marley, a reggae guy.
Keen’s show starts at 8 p.m. on Aug. 30 at Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets are on sale from $22 to $47.50.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Taylor Coughlin at email@example.com.