20 Questions With Robert Earl Keen

He Discusses Screenplays, Sunglasses and San Francisco

Get yourself a cold beer and a good book because Tuesday (May 10) has been proclaimed Robert Earl Keen Day by the governor of Texas. That same day, the literary singer-songwriter (who lives in Bandera, Texas) will release his new album, What I Really Mean. Taking questions from his fans, the Houston native discusses his favorite writers, why his fans outside of Texas are always apologizing and why his family just about disowned him.

1. How did you learn to play guitar?

I started with a book called The 10 Greatest Country Songs, and I learned nine of them. I didn’t learn the 10th one because it was called “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”

2. Do you ever play guitar just to play guitar? I haven’t seen you perform live, so I don’t know how much you actually play onstage. But I get the impression from recordings that you have a great, easygoing guitar style.

Yeah, I play guitar all the time. (laughs) As far as onstage, I would have to give the credit for my sound a lot to my band.

3. Where did you get the idea to write the song “This Old Porch”?

I believe you should write songs that you’re in touch with, whether it’s a fantasy or it’s a reality. In that case, that was a place we sat and played music. I just wanted to write this extended metaphor about the things the porch reminded me of. That’s what I started with. My friend Lyle [Lovett] and I put it together. It’s about being in a certain place and that place being so good, it reminds you of other good places.

4. I heard your new single “What I Really Mean” on Mountain Stage, and it’s really lovely. A lot of the songs you write are about traveling and restlessness and longing. Are you unfamiliar with contentment, or do you think it’s uninteresting as the subject of a song?

I like movement in songs, and I find that if you put the characters or yourself in play, you can make this miniature music movie, and that’s why it works for me. But am I content? I’m very happy with everything in my life.

5. Many of your songs, like “Corpus Christi Bay,” “The Road Goes On Forever,” “Sonora’s Death Row” and others, have a cinematic sweep to them. Has anybody approached you about making movies based on your songs?

Yeah, I have a stack of screenplays based on songs, primarily for “The Road Goes On Forever.” As soon as one of those screenplays comes in with a check for about a million dollars, I’m all over it. (laughs) Otherwise, I just thumb through them and read what people extrapolate from the story I made.

6. In your song, “Feeling Good Again,” is the person on the stairs a buddy or a girlfriend? That line gets me every time I hear it.

No, that’s my wife. A lot of people relate to that song. The thought there, once again, is going back to that idea of being in a place that you really like. And in that particular song, everything that’s good comes together at one time. The icing on the cake is you’re thinking about that person, you look up and there they are.

7. Where is your favorite festival to play in Texas or outside of Texas?

My current favorite one, and one of the best I’ve ever played really, is called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It’s in San Francisco in Golden Gate Park. It’s a three-day festival, and they have the best lineup, all kinds of great people. When they say “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” they mean it. But there is a bluegrass theme that goes through. There are a lot of bluegrass bands that play it. For instance, Tim O’Brien or Hot Rize and that kind of bluegrass, and then it would be Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe, Kevin Welch or Emmylou Harris. It’s a fantastic lineup, it goes for three days, it’s in Golden Gate Park which is beautiful, and if that weren’t good enough, it’s free! (laughs) It’s a fine thing, man. Yeah, that’s a knockout. I’ve played hundreds of festivals, and that one’s a killer.

8. I am from Boerne in the beautiful Texas hill country. You used to play every year at Berges Fest, our town’s yearly German festival, and I have listened to you since I was in the ninth grade. What do you love most about Texas?

I like the culture. I like the diversity of the culture and the fact that people are very proud of where they’re from. But the fact is it’s so diverse — in landscape and in people and in tastes. It really has a bit of everything, except for snow. (laughs) That’s what I love about it — the diversity.

9. How come most of the time you wear sunglasses when you perform? I have a picture that you took with us in Mexia and you had on shades in the photo, too.

Sometimes the lights on stage are too bright. It’s distracting, and I can’t see the people. That wouldn’t be exactly right. I don’t wear them most of the time. I wear them some of the time. … Because here’s your choice when you’re onstage: You can lower the lights, and then the people in the back of the room can’t see you, or you can wear sunglasses and tell them to do whatever they want to with the lights. It has nothing to do with a look or an attitude. It has to do with being able to see.

10. What you think about Todd Snider’s song, “Beer Run,” about some college boys going to one of your shows? Whenever I hear it on the radio, I laugh like it’s the first time I’ve ever heard it.

Todd Snider is one my absolute favorites. I think he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I love that song, but I love everything that Todd does.

11. I live in Missouri, and being from here, it is hard to find your music. Through friends in Texas, I have all your albums, and I have also turned on my friends to you. How does feel to be connected with fans outside the Texas music scene?

We spend probably two-thirds of our time touring outside of Texas. A lot of times, people will apologize or make a disclaimer like, “I’m not from Texas, but I like your music.” I feel like my music reaches everybody to some degree. I use the landscape of Texas as a backdrop to my show and my songs, but the themes reach out to almost everybody. I just feel like the reason we are out there — two-thirds of the time outside of Texas — is because we have a lot of fans outside and nobody should make any apologies for any of it. It’s all about music, really.

12. I was wondering if you ever worked with [steel guitarist and producer] Lloyd Maines. I’ve been hearing a lot about him producing Texas artists. I’m a new fan. That’s why I’m asking.

Lloyd and I did a lot of stuff. He produced my No. 2 Live Dinner record, which is probably the best-selling record I ever had. Lloyd played with me for quite a while. Lloyd’s just one of my favorite people, as far as musicians and guys to hang around with. I’ve done a lot of work with Lloyd. Lloyd was with Joe Ely for years and years, and he played with me for a while. He had produced some stuff, but about the time he was playing with me, he got into producing all these acts in Texas, and it’s been a huge part of his existence. That’s really why I don’t play as much with Lloyd is because he got so busy with production.

13. I saw you at Irving Plaza in Manhattan, and you blew the doors off the place. How do you like playing New York, and why do you think “non-radio” stars like you, Steve Earle, Dale Watson and even greats like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson seem to do so well here?

Well, I would say because it’s a giant place. What are there, 15 million people in New York? There are a lot of music fans, a lot of country music fans and a lot of fans, period. People seem to take to the music there. We go up there at least once a year, sometimes twice a year. It’s always been a really strong place for us. People in New York are passionate, and that’s why it works.

14. Whereas most of mainstream country music is like CliffsNotes, your lyrics are very literate and layered. Do you write prose or poetry as well as songs?

I used to write a lot of poetry when I was a kid. I don’t write prose because I’m really self-conscious about it. I’m an avid reader of fiction, and I love fiction. I love great writers and great writing. If I could even come close to being able to write like some of the people that I admire, I might give it a try. But I know for a fact I can’t. My general idea is that I wouldn’t want to insult them with my hen scratch.

15. Who are your favorite authors, and what books have you read recently?

After I said all that, this is odd because it’s nonfiction, but I’m reading The Civil War by Shelby Foote, which is like three huge volumes of stuff. But other than that, my favorite writers would be Cormac McCarthy, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald to some degree, Saul Bellow, those kind of people. The classics. It’s what I always turn to when I run out of junk.

16. Where do you go when it’s too hot in Texas?

(laughs) I go to the creek!

17. What do you think of Reckless Kelly?

I love Reckless Kelly. Great guys, great band. They’re doing everything for all the right reasons.

18. I miss the sound that [fiddler[ Brian Duckworth added to your music. Any chance of getting him in the studio for an album?

Ah, he comes back every once in a while, but he has his own thing going on with his violin shop in New Braunfels, Texas. He’s doing well there. He likes that.

19. Do you ever play acoustic solo shows? If so, how often?

Not very often. I do about one a year, and it’s usually out in Santa Cruz, Calif. I used to do a lot of solo stuff. That’s how it started. It all started with a 1963 Dodge Dart and a Peavey PA system and a Martin guitar in the back. I drove around all over the place, doing solo stuff, setting up my own PA.

20. Was that really your family in the “Merry Christmas to the Family” video? I especially want to know if that was your mom and dad.

No, that was actors and friends. (laughs) My family just about disowned me over that! They didn’t want to cop to that behavior. But, you know, we all worked it out.