Robert Earl Keen Gets Back to Storytelling for a New Album

The Rose Hotel Is Singer-Songwriter's First in Four Years

It’s been four years since Robert Earl Keen released his last studio album, What I Really Mean. With dwindling shelf space for CDs and slumping record sales, the Americana mainstay says he was unsure of how to approach a new project. But after some soul searching, the witty Texan is back with The Rose Hotel.

Produced by Lloyd Maines (the Dixie Chicks, Wayne Hancock, Pat Green), its 11 songs find Keen doing what he does best — crafting love stories and barroom anthems, taking stylistic chances and mixing in a few jokes. He recently talked with CMT.com about good vs. true stories, the new record’s famous guests and how he almost became a “comedian songwriter.”

CMT: I saw this quote and really liked it. You said, “If you could put a subtitle on your best songs it would be ‘based on a good story,’” as opposed to a true story, I assume. Could you elaborate on that a little?

Keen: I love fiction, and the reason I love fiction is that it allows the writer to put anything he wants to in, any way that he wants to. The message could be disguised as a person, or it could be disguised as a setting. The whole thing about “based on a true story,” well, if you want all the drama and all the fun and all the surrealism in a really great story, to get right down to hanging with the exact truth of it, sometimes they’re a little bit boring. So I could give a shit if it’s based on a true story, I just want it to be a good story.

Are there a lot of those good stories on The Rose Hotel?

Yeah, those are all good stories. I mean, like with [the song] “The Rose Hotel” … what I wanted was these two forces coming together and not being able to come together. You know, the quintessential unrequited love. But what I really was happy with, was that I have for the longest time been trying to write a song based on a cityscape, as opposed to some cowboy dude or some desert thing or hanging out by a train. And every time I ever sat down and tried to write some kind of cityscape thing with a bunch of taxis, curbs, windows and people walking up and down the sidewalk and crazy people playing drums and saying “God is coming” and all that stuff … all those kind of songs I could never lock into. And this one, I just felt like it all fell together, and I really was really happy about that.

What about “The Man Behind the Drums”? That one’s about The Band’s Levon Helm, right?

Well, that’s kind of journalistic. We played this show in New York and then went up to Woodstock [in upstate New York] and played what they call “the Ramble” up there that Levon owns. … We went there and were completely overwhelmed with the excitement and the level of playing that they had in that band and how great Levon was. He has tremendous charisma. And his drumming was really great. We got to sit right behind him and listen to the whole show, and then he got us all up and we sang “The Weight.” It was all our band and [Nickel Creek fiddler] Sara Watkins‘ up there with us, so there were like 17 or 18 people all on this little stage that couldn’t have been more than 12-by-12, so it was just crammed full of people and instruments, and we’re all singing “The Weight.” If there’s anything that’s magic about music, it’s that kind of moment there.

Another song I was interested in was “Something That I Do.” You’ve said that you have “the uncanny ability to simply hang out.”

Here’s also an aside to that: I think work is overrated. People are just like, “Oh, I’m working, I’m working, I’m working” and, you know, “Oh, I work 18 hours a day” or “I spent this part of my life working.” Yeah, well, exactly what did it get you? How good do you feel about everything? And not that I’m not into that. I do plenty of work myself. But I think that whole thing about “we have to be working” comes from, more or less, this Calvinist, Puritanical upbringing that the United States is sort of based on. Which is OK. That’s OK if you want to work all the time, but consequently you shouldn’t feel guilty if you’re not working, you know? You should be able to just take it easy and enjoy things. So I’m just celebrating doing nothing.

You have some really great guests on this album. What made you want to work with Greg Brown?

I love his work. Not only does he have a beautiful voice and he’s a really good musician, but he is really philosophically … I don’t know … wonderful. And some of it’s kind of truly folk music, and there’s a real message and it’s about “let’s fix the world instead of break it apart.” But not blind to the pitfalls of modern life at all, he includes all that so you can feel like you’re rooted in this particular period of time, and I just love his writing.

You sing “Laughing River” together on the new album. Is that one of your favorite songs by Brown?

I love that song because it’s a metaphor for the music business, really, but disguised in a baseball sense. And I love that.

What about Billy Bob Thornton’s appearance on “10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar”?

My road manager, Toby Scott, was hanging out in Austin while we were making this record, and he ran into Billy Bob. Billy Bob gave him his number, asking me to call him. Most of the time when that happens — somebody famous gives me a number — I never call them because I don’t know what to say, you know? And I’ve got friends that really beat me up about that. It’s like, “Are you crazy?”

The next day, I thought, “Hey, I’m doing a song that would fit him pretty well. I wonder if he’d want to do that?” So I called him, and he said he’d be happy to if we could just send it to his studio. He sang harmony parts on all the choruses and sang this one verse, which I wanted him to do because it’s kind of a nod to this old folkie in Austin named Blaze Foley who was murdered. Blaze was a real enigma, so I thought Billy Bob playing the part there or talking about Blaze was fitting somehow.

Your songs have a lot of humor in them. Is that really important to you?

I don’t know. It just kind of happens. … I’ll write a couple of songs and be pretty serious, and then for some reason, it’s just like the groom who can’t keep a straight face. I just have to write something stupid just to get back to some kind of reality.

Another thing about the comedy, though, is that I played for a long time by myself — went to a lot of coffee houses — and if you’re just playing a standard love song, you don’t know if anybody hears it or pays any attention or not. You play a comedy song, and if it’s really funny, you’re gonna get a reaction. So a lot of that was, I kind of spoiled myself, like I needed the reaction. So I’d write these funny songs, and I kind of went that way until one day I went to some place … and it had “Robert Earl Keen: Comedian Songwriter.” And I went, “Oh, no, no, no. I’m not a comedian. I just write a few funny songs.” But, still to this day, I still write stuff just to amuse myself.

Chris lives in Nashville and has written for CMT.com and CMT Edge since 2007. The devil made him do it the first time, the second time he done it on his own.