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Robert Earl Keen: Fame on his own terms

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Robert Earl Keen, the Southern-Texas songwriting genius with one of the five greatest country music songs ever recorded to his credit, knows fame. Not, as he notes, the "Garth Brooks or Madonna kind of fame," but close enough to know that it's a double-edged sword.

"Sometimes being successful is as dangerous as being a failure," Keen said in that unmistakable twang that sets him apart from just about every other country music singer alive, with maybe the exception of his old Texas buddies Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. "You've got to be in a position where you can see it coming, 'cause it comes at you hard and fast."

Keen has enjoyed a level of success that's made him a legend among his devoted fans, but unlike many of his contemporaries in the music business, he's done it on his own terms. Whether with major labels or smaller independents, no one's managed to pull the strings in Keen's 30-plus years of writing and singing his songs.

"Creative control -- whatever that is -- I've never really had to fight for that," the singer said in a telephone interview in advance of his performance Thursday at the BamaJam Music & Arts Festival in Enterprise, Ala. "The most I've ever had to fight people at the record labels I've signed with is over the sequencing of my records. Of course, that's been rendered obsolete -- people do their own sequencing now -- but 10 years ago it was an issue I was willing to battle over.

"I don't know, really, how it got to the point where the record executives would just leave me alone. Maybe they read some of my press and heard what an ornery b------ I am."

Keen has, in his seminal career, recorded the aforementioned top five greatest country song ever ("The Road Goes on Forever"), the most hilarious-because-it's-real Christmas song ever recorded ("Merry Christmas from the Family") and one of the top two or three songs ever recorded about a domestic act of terrorism ("Shades of Gray").

The creator of these and dozens of other memorable songs says he's contemplated the inevitability of eventually leaving behind the life that's earned him a living and his own place in the musical pantheon -- "When I decide to quit, you won't see me again" -- but his loyal following can rest easy in the knowledge that leaving's not something Keen's planning anytime soon.

The troubadour, who is scheduled to play at BamaJam's B (main) Stage Thursday from 7 p.m.-8 p.m. (CST), discussed his colorful career in an exclusive interview with The Herald.

ALBANY HERALD: You've played in probably every honky-tonk and dive bar there is in Texas and a lot of other states. What's your take on playing a festival like BamaJam?

ROBERT EARL KEEN: I like the performing part of this, and I've found that these big shows can be fun if they have the right kind of vibe. They almost always turn out to good or bad by the way people run them. Sometimes you get that welcome, laid-back vibe, and sometimes you feel like you've been shot through like a goose.

AH: Early in your career you played and hung out with Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. How big an impact did they have on your career?

REK: Lyle and I had that friendship connection from our Texas A&M days. He introduced me to some of the blues guys that influenced him, and I was a died-in-the-wool country fan, so I introduced him to stuff like Bob Wills and bluegrass. We found out, though, that we really had a lot in common, and Lyle ended up being very influential to me as a songwriter.

I was writing poems and my stuff, and I came at songwriting from the perspective of 'I'm gonna write this like some other songwriter.' Lyle wrote from his own perspective, and he made me see that I was better equipped to write from Robert Earl Keen's perspective than from sombody else's.

Steve and I were hanging out together in Austin, and he's the one who talked me into moving to Nashville. That turned out to have a huge impact on my career.

AH: Your songs -- your lyrics -- are relatable; I know those people you're singing about. Do you write from personal experiences, about people you know?

REK: I mix it up a little, actually. I love full-blown, colorful fiction. What I like to do in my songs is take a great story and embellish it. But a good story, whether it's true or not, is always a good place to start. I'll get a good story going, grab a piece of the action from my own experiences, and stick it in.

Like the song 'Shades of Gray,' that's about the Oklahoma City bombing. I was there the day after the bombing, and I wanted to write a song about it, but not some folk song or anthem. So I took the facts of the bombing, threw in some that's entirely fabrication and used some of the problems of my own friends and family to tell the story.

AH: Country music today's not what it was even a decade ago. You mentioned that you were a 'died-in-the-wool country fan' before. What do you think of country music today?

REK: I stopped listening to country music, just turned the radio off, after Dwight Yoakam did 'The Streets of Bakersfield' with Buck Ownes. It was such a great sound, everything after that was just flat. I have, though, become a fan of Jamey Johnson (who is also playing at BamaJam). I think it's mainly because he's channeling some of the old stuff.

AH: Are you very self-critical? Are you a Robert Earl Keen fan, or do you beat yourself up over what you could have done with your songs?

REK: When you start beating yourself up over your body of work, you don't come away feeling very good. I can honestly say there are songs from my first record on that I don't mind recommending. There's no real percentage in beating yourself up; I just try to write a better song than I did the last time.

AH: So what are your favorite Robert Earl Keen songs?

REK: I'm proud of stuff I did on all of my records. I particularly enjoy 'The Great Hank,' 'Farm Fresh Onions' -- even though I got abused over that one for doing 'some kind of rap take-off' ... It was just a poem -- 'Shades of Gray,' and the bigger songs like 'The Road Goes on Forever' and 'Merry Christmas.'

AH: I've heard artists say they get tired of doing their bigger hits night after night. Do you feel that way about songs like 'Road?'

REK: You know, people always ask me to play that song, and I don't mind. It's not like they're asking me to do an Eagles song. They're asking me to sing my song, so what kind of idiot would I be to get upset about that? I mean, how many people have their own 'Sweet Home Alabama,' their own 'Freebird?' Man, it hits me like a freight train that (fans) are not asking me to sing someone else's song, they're not asking me to sing Neil Diamond. That's one of mine they're asking for. It's pretty cool.

AH: Your career parallels somewhat the movie 'Crazy Heart.' Did you see it and did you like it?

REK: I love some of the soundtrack and the portrayal (by Jeff Bridges). But there was a technical part that just drove me crazy. When they threw the hat on the microphone ... man, there would have been feedback. Everybody that knows anything about the technical aspect knows there would have been feedback. Drives me crazy. I also didn't like the ending ... the lone cowboy rides off into the sunset. Too much perfume.

AH: Fans can be true fanatics at times. They love something an artist has created, they relate to it, and so they decide they have a 'connection' with that artist. How do you feel about your fans?

REK: Almost every show I do, I'll go down and talk to people, sign their stuff, take a picture. I feel somewhat obligated; I appreciate their coming out to see me. They're only asking for a minute of my time, and I don't mind giving it.

AH: I read somewhere that you actually wrote for a newspaper. I can't imagine anyone giving up this glamorous career to do what you do.

REK: (Laughing) Nah, I've written some articles for publications before, but I never actually worked at a newspaper.

AH: You've pretty much managed your career the way you wanted. Is that by some grand design, some master plan?

REK: I really have never had much of a plan; I'm actually surprised I've managed to stick it out this long. I don't look very far down the road, but when I do decide to quit, you won't see me again. I've always admired people who throw out that bouquet of roses and just walk away.

AH: But did it hit you from a ways back that (music) is something you'd end up doing? Was there some big moment where you knew that this was your career path?

REK: I did feel all along that there was something in the future that I was meant to do. Really, though, when I got started playing guitar, started putting my poems to music, it all just came together. I was actually in this kind of musical vacuum. I'd read stories about someone like Bill Monroe, and finally I just took it all and cobbled this together. I really just kind of stumbled onto it.

AH: We'll make this the last question. Sometimes people look back on their life's work and wonder if it all was worth it. How about you?

REK: It's definitely been worth it. I probably could have done something else in life ... I've found out over the years I'm a pretty good businessman. So, I could have probably done something else in the business world and been good at it. But I don't think it would have been as colorful as this.