Keen observer: That English degree is finally getting him somewhere.
Robert Earl Keen turns to the literary canon for down-home inspiration
By Paul Davis
Texas-born Robert Earl Keen has thrived on the fringes of folk and country for the past two decades. Keen's singular talent for leveling wry and observant juke-joint pastiches alongside literate and empathetic story-songs is not the stuff that tops the Nashville charts, but Keen has carved out his own well-established niche with an unmistakable brand of Texas twang. What with his oilman father and English degree from Texas A&M, some have questioned Keen's country credibility, but these details only cement Keen as a purely modern representation of the diverse, irascible and maverick spirit of his native Texas.
One of Keen's greatest strengths is the sheer, literate depth of his tales—pure slices of erudite Americana cut from a swath of the kind of Western despair that Cormac McCarthy specialized in. And while Keen owes much to the Texas troubadours that came before him, the songwriter who didn't begin putting his words to music until he was in college credits the titans of 20th-century American literature as his primary artistic inspirations.
"Authors have the greatest impact for me, more than songwriters," Keen says. "My love for literature helps me shape how I brand my songs; it's where I go when I'm looking for ways to create my songs. Early on, one of my favorite authors was Jon Cheever—I loved how he would take an ordinary situation and turn it on its head." Keen's enthusiasm for the authors who have informed his voice is palpable, tipping his hat to "all of the classic authors—Fitzgerald, Steinbeck." No tour bus XBox or debauched hotel room destruction for Keen—instead he considers literature his "never-ending drug well. I'm always carrying around a Cormac McCarthy book; a lot of that stuff is melancholy, but it's almost beautiful in its darkness."
For a thoughtful and methodical songwriter such as Keen, the creative process is a slow and mysterious one. It's been two years since his last studio album was released—'05's What I Really Mean. And while Keen is certainly working on a follow-up, he remains tight-lipped about any details. "I am working on an idea of new recorded material, but I'm not clear about it right now. I want it to be fleshed out before I speak on it," he says vaguely, before laughing, "I could be a White House spokesman, couldn't I?"
Despite his slow process, Keen is no slouch sitting around his Texas home waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, he and his band maintain a touring schedule that puts them on the road for 10-12 dates every month of the year. With such a demanding schedule, Keen has found that constant bursts of a handful of dates are the best way to stay on the road without depleting band morale. "We've generally found that 10 days or so out of the month is real comfortable without wearing anybody out—we're making sure everyone's in good shape and can spend time with the family." Unlike most modern-day tour schedules, in which a whirlwind three-month tour immediately follows a record release, Keen has found his short bursts of touring to be the most workable solution. Still, 120 dates a year is a grueling tour schedule, no matter how you stagger those dates—Keen notes that "the trade-off is that we have to do 10-12 dates every month!"
With this never-ending schedule, Keen finds a way to make it out to Santa Cruz twice a year, no small trek for the inveterate road dog. But despite the distance, it's an obvious regular stop for the man who immortalized Santa Cruz and KPIG's Sleepy John in the song "I'm Comin' Home." "I went out [to Santa Cruz] first in about 1998," he says, "and that's where I met Sleepy John. I opened at the Kuumbwa for Nanci Griffith and I just loved Santa Cruz—it didn't fit into that Beach Boys or InStyle version of what California's supposed to be about." Keen has become a local favorite and a KPIG standby in the 19 years since, and the appreciation is mutual, evident from the tongue-in-cheek ode he offers in "I'm Comin' Home." "To me it was like an undiscovered jewel," he says. "If only everything in touring and the music business was like it is in Santa Cruz—it's like the land of Oz."
Robert Earl Keen performs Friday, Feb. 23, at 8pm at the Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $23 adv/$26 door when available. For more information call 831.479.9421.
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