Robert Earl Keen’s latest release, Walking Distance (Arista, 1998), offers starkly pretty accounts of journeys both rough and tranquil, but the Southwestern balladeer confides that he wrote most of those songs sitting in one place — a small trailer behind his home in the Texas desert country.
“There’s no phone, no TV in [the trailer],” Keen explains, adding, “I stayed there two weeks, and it was an experiment that seemed to work. Writing songs at home is crucial for me, because my songs are so setting-oriented. I’m not a mountains or sea type of person; the desert is very real to me. My songs explore where you are first, then who, then what happened.
“But the best place to be [when I’m writing songs],” he adds, “is where no one can find me.”
Keen doesn’t seem to be including his family in this statement (“I’ll Be Here,” Keen’s touching ode to his wife, is pure proof of his devotion in that department), but rather the business aspect of an industry that obviously chafes his nerves.
Though, by all accounts, violently adored in his country-music-crazy home state, Keen is no fan of popular country music. He describes his own sound as “fill[ing] a pretty good hole between pop and country,” and the singer/songwriter is loath to align himself with what he feels has become an absurdly homogenized genre.
“I certainly don’t consider myself a country act,” he declares.
And he’s certainly not afraid to tell you why:
“I haven’t really listened to any new [country] in over five years, because there’s very little fun in it,” he notes dryly. “It’s about 95 percent love songs, but all the love songs are about these absolute truths — basically, [that] you’re going to wither away and die if things don’t work out. And that’s total B.S. Maybe if you’re 14, you feel like your world is ending if the relationship falls apart, but even a 14-year-old knows better than that. … In the past, [country was more] real, or it was so goofy it was funny. There was a [country] song in the late ’60s that we used to howl about — ‘Don’t Squeeze My Charmin.’ You don’t hear that [kind of humor] anymore.”
To become popular today, country tunes must be slick but soulless, Keen maintains.
“Today, it’s these well-crafted but unbelievable tunes,” he grouses. “And the songs that get the most airplay are the crappiest. It’s like a Rubix Cube of wordplay — interesting for about five seconds, then it’s like, ‘Give me ‘Don’t Squeeze my Charmin.'”
In “Happy Holidays Y’all” (from Walking Distance), Keen carries the goofy torch gleefully, as evinced by lines like “Of course old dad got mom a flannel robe and Ken a socket set/Mom got Kay a super-value pack of Nicorette.”
Though, Keen names Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan among his musical influences, the Texan often crafts his songs with his favorite fiction writers in mind. “I write songs in the same way I perceive short stories,” he explains. “John Cheever would take a normal setting and twist it. I love that; it made a big impact on me.”
“Feeling Good Again,” one of the most effective songs on Walking Distance, details the wonder of stumbling upon happiness again after a season of trouble. And local street kids would definitely relate to the last chorus of “Carolina” — Keen’s elegiac account of a distressing visit to our town: “Love has no boundary, sorrow no end/And the lawmen of Asheville have no mercy in them.”
In his 10 years of delivering story-songs across the country, Keen has noticed that the ranks of his fellow emissaries of original roots music are waning. “There are just not as many people doing it,” he notes. “Everyone’s looking for a record deal, a [career that’s] more or less industry-controlled, and [therefore] less chaotic.” And touring, he laments, has gotten much more expensive over the years. Still, he finds that “the people who are out there are more serious, and have more passion about what they do. … People [who] want to [share music] get out there, one way or another.
Keen’s way of “getting out there” is reflected in the restless undercurrent that’s viscerally palpable on Walking Distance. “There’s always some kind of move going on, somewhere,” he concludes.