The weekly critics-picks column leads with an item about Robert Earl Keen, who plays Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday; and the item says that's probably close enough to the holidays for him to bust out "Merry Christmas From the Family." For more on that, see the closing stretch of the interview below from one of his previous swings through the area.
Look Who's Coming: Robert Earl Keen
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Feb. 9, 2004
Twenty years ago, Robert Earl Keen financed his first album by pawning a shotgun, taking out a loan on his car and passing the hat among friends. Which sounds a lot like a song Keen might write, given his facility at capturing the more colorful absurdities of life. This is a man who marked the occasion of his first major label album (1997's "Picnic") by putting a photograph of his own car in flames on the cover.
Keen is a card-carrying member of the Texas literary singer-songwriter mafia, with impeccable credentials. He was a classmate of Lyle Lovett at Texas A&M University, and he has worked with Townes Van Zant and Guy Clark. When he's not on the road, Keen resides in semi-rural splendor in Bandera, Texas. And he still cites Texas' own Shiner Bock as his favorite beer.
Keen gets most of his attention for such humorous songs as "Merry Christmas from the Family," his signature ode to holiday dysfunction, and well-oiled songs about barbecue and lost weekends. But the funny stuff can overshadow his skill at subtler, more serious songs that get to the heart of relations between people.
"Farm Fresh Onions" (Audium/Koch Records), Keen's 10th album, includes some of both. The poetically surreal title track riffs on the otherworldly properties of onions as cosmic tokens of truth, while "Famous Words" ponders the sad finality of parting words foreshadowing unexpected death.
Hitting the road again, Keen brings his crackerjack band to play Cat's Cradle on Thursday.
Q - Do you ever get the urge to live somewhere other than Bandera?
A - I think about that sometimes. I really love where I live, but sometimes I'd like to be a little closer to theater or music other than Ray Price and Conway Twitty. You're surrounded by a kind of cowboy mentality here, even though that's not really "real." I don't wanna rant, but c'mon. Roy Rogers, you can put up your six-gun now because the stagecoach has left the station. What keeps me smiling is to wonder, "What if clowns were as popular as cowboys?" Then instead of barroom brawls, people would just juggle or something.
Q - The song "Farm Fresh Onions" is either mighty deep or mighty silly. Who knew that onions had such mystical power?
A - Yeah, well, I packed 'em with that power. That one was fun to write, one of those deals where I just went from one idea to the next with no endgame in mind until it ended the right way. Sometimes you create almost too much structure around a song. That's one reason I don't write basic country songs anymore -- I could give a [expletive] about two verses, two choruses, a bridge and a chorus. I've written a lot of those, and there's a real art to the craft of making them work. But that's just not as interesting to me as writing some narrative, or a 15-verse song.
Q - So that's your car in flames on the cover of your 1997 album, "Picnic"?
A - Yeah, that was at Willie Nelson's 1974 Fourth of July picnic. Somebody else's exhaust caught the grass on fire, and he woke up and drove off. But he left a brushfire behind that turned into a string of about 40 burning cars, and then the gas tanks started blowing up and it got unmanageable. Fortunately, nobody was hurt; just cars. I'm sure the promoters have thanked their lucky stars that happened in the '70s and not the '90s. They'd still be digging ditches somewhere in Utah because the lawsuits would never stop coming. But there never was one lawsuit filed over that.
Q - Are you interested in branching out from songwriting to writing prose?
A - I'm a real fan of prose writing, and I might try it someday if I get cocky enough. But I just don't feel it in my bones. I don't think I could ever approach the magnificence of Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Larry Brown. Now Larry's a fan of mine, so we have a kind of mutual admiration society. But we do different things. I wouldn't want him to pitch me a song, either.
Q - On the road, you must get people approaching you with songs they want to pitch.
A - All the time. It can put you between a rock and a hard place if it's someone you really admire, some kind of sports figure. You'd be surprised at just how much awful stuff is out there. I'll listen to some of it and go, "I don't think I ever want to listen to a CD again unless I already know something about it." Because I've only heard about three or four total unknowns in my life who made me go, "Wow!" A lot of people just go by that two-verse-two-chorus-bridge-chorus thing, and like I said, I could care less for all of that. You've gotta be real good to pull that off, and not many people are.
Q - A popular novelty song like "Merry Christmas," is that a blessing or a curse?
A - The great thing about "Merry Christmas from the Family" is that it's a Christmas song. I have an arbitrary rule, I don't play that song between Easter and Labor Day. So it keeps it OK for the other half of the year. Now if I played that all year, I'd definitely get sick of it. I have to stand up against a lot of people screaming for it. And I just tell them, "Sorry, if you want to hear that one, you'll have to come back after Labor Day."