Jump to Content

Welcome! You’re browsing the No Depression Archives

No Depression has been the foremost journalistic authority on roots music for well over a decade, publishing 75 issues from 1995 to 2008. No Depression ceased publishing magazines in 2008 and took to the web. We have made the contents of those issues accessible online via this extensive archive and also feature a robust community website with blogs, photos, videos, music, news, discussion and more.

Close This

The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #57 May-June 2005

Robert Earl Keen

Can you patch together a feeling that's going to stick with somebody ten years from now?a conversation with Robert Earl Keen

So here’s the setup: “Two Aggies walk into a bar…”

Aggie jokes are a staple of humor in Texas, but the two A&M alumni who embraced in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons in Austin early one Thursday morning in mid-March could luxuriate in the fact that the joke was not on them. One of the two men was Robert Earl Keen; the other was his college friend and musical colleague Lyle Lovett. Both men’s hair was touched with gray, and both have come an improbably long way since they used to sit and swap songs on the front porch of Keen’s student quarters on Church Street in College Station.

Keen was on hand to plug a forthcoming album, What I Really Mean. During the week that South By Southwest takes over the city, radio station KGSR beams its morning show from the Four Seasons bar and invites a slew of musicians to sit in and perform. For his part, Lovett didn’t have anything to sell; he just enjoyed hanging around the broadcasts all week and kibitzing with the DJs.

Keen came away from A&M in 1980 with an English degree and the rudiments of a self-taught musical education. Discovering he could make music was like walking through a door into a new room.

In 1983, he won a Best New Songwriter award at the Kerrville Folk Festival and followed that up by taking Best Songwriter honors in the Austin Chronicle Reader’s Poll. He released his debut album, No Kinda Dancer (funded by investors to the tune of about $4500), independently in 1984. It contained his first signature tune, “The Front Porch Song”, co-authored with Lovett and chronicling their feckless Aggie days. He signed on with Sugar Hill and released The Live Album (which documented Keen’s well-deserved reputation as a raconteur), West Textures and A Bigger Piece Of Sky from 1988-93.

His songs were (and are) populated with charismatic losers, idealistic drunks, sullen misfits and star-crossed lovers — as rowdy and vivid a cast of characters as James Joyce might have assembled (if Joyce had grown up in Texas dipping snuff and singing “The Aggie War Hymn” before football games). One song about desperados on a full-throttle run down a dead-end street, “The Road Goes On Forever”, became the most improbable party anthem in Texas music history (and the title track of an album by Willie & Waylon & Cash & Kristofferson, aka the Highwaymen).

Two major-label albums, 1997′s Picnic and 1998′s Walking Distance, helped give him a national profile, as did ceaseless touring. Audiences responded less to his serviceable baritone voice (“People get used to my voice,” he said wryly one night outside a bar in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. “But then, people get used to artichokes too.”) than to his vivid characters and hardscrabble stories.

What I Really Mean, due May 10 on Koch Nashville, has more than its share of those, and it seems notably darker in tone and subject matter than its last couple of predecessors. Allegorical tales such as “The Traveling Storm” share space with surreal portraits such as “The Great Hank”, lovers’ laments like “For Love” and “Broken End Of Love”, and yet another of Keen’s tongue-in-cheek Mexican travelogues, “A Border Tragedy”.

Robert Earl Keen is a lifer, and his passion for his life’s work is nowhere near being quenched.

I. THE LAST TIME I FELT LIKE THIS WAS FOR NEIL ARMSTRONG

NO DEPRESSION: How did 2004 treat you?

ROBERT EARL KEEN: We had a spectacular year as far as touring goes. Had lots of fun, did some Dave Matthews dates. And we did that Lance Armstrong thing down there in Austin [the downtown blowout celebrating Armstrong's sixth straight Tour de France victory]. I was ready to put down the guitar and say I don’t ever want to do another gig, ever — that was as good as it gets. All that swelling with pride and happiness sort of thing. And for all the right reasons. I was thinking that the last time I felt like this was for Neil Armstrong. When those yellow lights came on [the state capitol building was illuminated with yellow spotlights, symbolic of the Tour winner's yellow jersey] and Lance walked onstage, I almost cried.

We played this marvelous festival last year called the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Three days, 70,000 people every day. And we were the first act asked back for next year, out of Emmylou [Harris] and Gillian [Welch] and John Prine and Nick Lowe.

ND: Do you get a different buzz from doing something like that than singing for 20,000 beer-drinking Texas college kids at Willie’s Picnic?

REK: It’s somewhat different. That [San Francisco] audience, as large as it was and as big as it was, they’re there more on the music fan side, not the event fan side.…Sometimes you go out there and get the buzz just from the people power. That’s our thing, we always do a different set, to see what’s going to work. As far as versatility, we’ve got a pretty broad spectrum — we can go from extremely quiet and almost painfully poetic to scream and yell and drink more beer.

ND: Do you think of yourself as a different performer when you cross the state line?

REK: No…My big axe to grind about this whole deal is that I’m getting tired of always getting locked into this “Texas singer-songwriter” thing. And that is not to say anything disparaging about those guys. It’s great company. But I wanna tell you — I’m standing toe-to-toe with Elvis Costello or John Prine or Dylan or any of those guys. I’m writing these songs, they kick ass, they completely translate anywhere and…I’m there.

Enjoy the ND archives? Consider making a donation with PayPal or send a check to:
No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108

Discuss

Did you enjoy this article? Start a discussion about it, or find out what others are saying in the No Depression Community forum.

Join the Discussion »

Find out what's going on in roots music. Share concert photos and videos, learn about new artists, blog about the music you love.

Join the No Depression Community »

Originally Featured in Issue #57 May-June 2005

Buy our history before it’s gone!

Each issue is artfully designed and packed full of great photos that you don‘t get online. Visit the No Depression store to own a piece of history.

Visit the No Depression Store »


From the Blogs

  • Freight Train Boogie Show #264 features new music from Old Crow Medicine Show, Carolina Story, Yvette Landry and The Sweet Potatoes
    FTB Show #264 features the new album by Old Crow Medicine Show called Remedy.  Also new music from Carolina Story, Yvette Landry and The Sweet Potatoes. Here's the iTunes link to subscribe to the FTB podcasts.  Here's the direct link to … […]
  • Vancouver International Folk Festival Day Two (Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC - July 19th, 2014)
    While Friday night at the Vancouver Folk Festival focuses on main stage performances, the rest of the weekend on the sprawling festival grounds of Jericho Beach is as notable for its smaller workshop performances. This was especially true this year. This particular Saturday started with the official public announcement of Joan Baez's cancellation. Perha […]
  • Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery - Man Is Born for Trouble (Album Review)
    The origin story of Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery is pivotal for an appreciation of Powell’s music. The name, inspired by the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, the first silent western committed to celluloid, evokes Powell’s affinity for history, American aestheticism, and art that has passed through generations and endured technological revol […]
  • By the Time You Read This, It'll Be Over: A Pre-Newport Ramble
    Missing the first night -- likely the best of the three, given my taste and interest -- is sort of a bummer. But, on the other hand there's still two more days and nights to wander around the festival site, to hopefully discover a new act or the reinvention of something old. And, to be completely honest, the music and performances will run second to jus […]
  • Well Crafted, The “Not To Be Missed” Music Festival of 2014
    Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill located in pristine Harrodsburg, Kentucky plays host to what is shaping up to be the best Americana music festival of 2014.  Well Crafted, August 8-9 2014, couples some of the best musical talent in our beloved scene with the fine frothy libations of Kentucky’s local Craft Beer creators.  Shaker Steps Productions’ Derek Feldma […]
  • Five Questions: Bry Webb
    After years of blasting it out as a member of the Constantines, singer/songwriter Bry Webb turned it all down a few notches for his new solo effort, Free Will. Written as a something of a meditation on his new role as a father to a son, the set is quieter, to be sure, but it's not without some edge. After all, you can take the boy out of the rock, but y […]

Shop Amazon by clicking through this logo to support NoDepression.com. We get a percentage of every purchase you make!


Subscribe To the No Depression Newsletter

Subscribe to the No Depression Newsletter