Robert Earl Keen Talks Breaking the Bluegrass Law
“Do I look too relaxed here?” asks Robert Earl Keen, sinking deep into a chair in a leather bomber jacket, his pink and purple striped socks peeking out as he kicks his feet up on the coffee table and rests them next to his hat. “Because I’m really sliding.”
If he appears comfortable, it’s probably because he is — here, in the office of his new label, Dualtone Records, where he just finished a meeting over takeout pizza (“You sure you don’t want a slice?” he insists) and here in Nashville, where he’s been coming to co-write with various Music Row pros. He’s also pretty cozy in his new role as bluegrass interpreter with February’s Happy Prisoner, his album of covers from across the genre, which took the master Texan songwriter back to his childhood roots of Flatt, Scruggs and honing his chops alongside contest fiddlers, furiously sweating to keep in time. It also helped him recall the trappings of teenage romance.
“I went on my first date — stupid, stupid, stupid — to a bluegrass festival,” he says in a voice that sounds a little bit like the Dude from The Big Lebowski, if he were a literature professor at Oberlin. “I had just gotten my driver’s license and I took this girl from down the street that I really liked. But I think she was a little baffled by the whole thing — she liked pop music, and this was in pretty deep Texas. Pretty hillbilly, pretty weird.” They kept in touch for a while after that, but it was the music he couldn’t shake.
Keen — who is often mentioned in the same breath as fellow Lone Star folk-country deities Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle — actually was weaned on bluegrass, even beyond that one misguided outing where he thought a mandolin jam might make a nice adolescent aphrodisiac. Happy Prisoner charts the music that he played on the front porch while at Texas A&M, picking alongside speedy takes on Bill Monroe and the Carter Family. Keen insists you can hear hints of Appalachia all across his creations.
“I have a real soft spot for a murder ballad,” he says, his brows rising. “And some of my songs are not the most upbeat things, lyrically. I think the head count on A Bigger Piece of Sky was about 38 people. I like the drama of knocking off a few people in your songs. And it really locked me into my guitar style. I can almost never strum a guitar like ‘zing-zing-zing.’ I have to do an alternating bass thing, and that came from bluegrass.”
That pattern of play suited him well: As he told stories of the renegade life, the outsider and the outlaw, those instincts to slap the strings with the restlessness of a lost mountain soul proved fruitful in driving his “cinematic” landscapes, as he describes them. And then there’s “The Road Goes on Forever,” which has become a veritable Texas anthem that commits more crimes than the Louvin Brothers on “Knoxville Girl” and Jimmie Rodgers on “Frankie and Johnny” combined. As the years went by, Keen became known more and more for that imaginative, often dark lyrical hand and skewered take on the Americana crown. But at the end of the day, it was bluegrass that made up the bulk of what he listened to in his spare time.
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