Q&A: Robert Earl Keen - The Colorado Sound

Q&A: Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen is in Colorado this week, with shows in Fort Collins, Aspen, and Denver. Photo credit: Nick Doll

Robert Earl Keen’s career really needs no introduction. The Texas and Americana icon has some of the most memorable songs over the past four decades. The albums and collaborations go on forever too. 

We caught up with Keen during a pretty big moment in his career, with the second season of his Americana Podcast set to launch. In the show, he spends time going through the history of Americana, telling stories and spinning Keen-like yarns with some of the best Americana musicians. 

Then later this year, Keen will be inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters – joining Willie Nelson, Cormac McCarthy, Larry David, and Wes Anderson. He’s also been busy raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hill Country Youth Orchestras, which he’ll do again this year with shows in Texas.

A cold, six-pack of beer to that, Mr. Keen.

This week, we had a chance to talk about that and more as Keen gets ready for his Colorado shows.

Note: this interview has been slightly edited for clarity

The Colorado Sound: We’re hoping your podcast isn’t going to get in the way of your making new music.  How do you balance the new needs (thanks to your daughter) of having a new medium to learn? 

Robert Earl Keen: When you are a touring musician you can become really isolated. I strive to stay in the music scene and hang in there with [what’s going on]. You can get out in your own solar system, spin out into the universe and never return. I’m always trying to rope myself back in. I can feel it when it’s happening. Making records is one thing, but I’ve made a lot of records. There are so many other avenues in the music business to explore in a creative way. I thought this would really, really be good as one of those trying-to-give-back kinda things. Yeah, there is a lot of commitment to the podcast. But I think we balance it well. And overall, I know we need this sort of thing so it is always worth it.

Of course there are natural differences because of time, but how different is the Texas music scene now than it was, say 30 or 40 years ago, when you were coming up in it?  

I lived in Austin, Texas in the ’80s and it was home to the richest artistic and chaotic neutral environments anywhere. Of course, there were world-class songwriters and guitar players (Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn), and there were legendary folk heroes (Kenneth Threadgill and The Grey Ghost) but, there were unclassifiable things as well. The Uranium Savages, Spamarama, the O’Henry Pun-off, Eeyore’s Birthday Party, Max for Mayor, and an untold amount of crazy music venues. Texas was its own thing. Americana music was and is its own thing.

A lot of great songwriters have come out of Texas. Many of them great storytellers. 

Who are this generation’s Guy Clark or Townes or Willie or Lyle or anyone?

I think Nashville has been waiting for the reincarnation of Hank Williams since he died in 1953 and finally, there is actually somebody with that sort of talent and ability to sing. But not just the singing, but writing as well. That I am really impressed with. I like his music and I like him as a person. Sliced bread and free whiskey ain’t got nothing on Tyler Childers. However, in my humble opinion, all three go together like the sun and moon and stars.

What would the 2020 Robert Earl Keen tell the 1978 Texas A&M student Robert Earl Keen?

I wish I had known from the get-go that you can learn how to do anything you want to do. I have only ever felt I had a natural gift for writing and remembering lyrics. But for some reason, I put a lot more emphasis on natural gifts in life, and I realized late that pretty much anything you want to do, that you have enough passion for, is a learnable skill. So, you may not be as good as the people you admire and are trying to emulate but you can certainly learn enough to know what they are doing and how it feels to do it.

If you don’t already know, John Oates (of Hall & Oates) shaved his famous mustache but it lives on with its own blog and animated cartoon on FunnyOrDie.com.  Are there any big plans for your beard? 

For right now this beard is staying on my face. No TV shows lined up for it. 

Darn, the road really does seem to be going on forever, doesn’t it?

It does seem that way, doesn’t it?