Robert Earl Keen: The Shindig Interview Robert Earl Keen: The Shindig Interview
Robert Earl Keen brings his "Countdown to Christams" tour to Arkansas, December 17. Robert Earl Keen: The Shindig Interview

By Matt McNair

I can’t remember how I ended up with No.2 LIVE Dinner, but it wasn’t because I knew who Robert Earl Keen was. (Gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you about life before the Great Algorithm.) I doubt I picked it up new, because I wasn’t really in a position to purchase anything new, even a CD. Especially not a CD by a guy I’d never heard of. So my copy of No. 2, clean on the disc but with the case beat all to hell, probably came out of the used CD bin in some record store or other, bought on an affordable whim.

The first time I saw Robert Earl Keen live and in person was a few years later. I still didn’t have any money to speak of, but I did have a job, and that job came with a press pass. The outfit I worked for didn’t have much use for music criticism, and no one was interested in my Robert Earl Keen story pitch. That was not reflected on the press pass, though, and when I rolled into Fayetteville to find the show sold out, I whipped out the old press badge and I was off to the races.

That show, at George’s Majestic Lounge, was a transformative experience. I knew some of the songs because of my old REK CD, but I wasn’t prepared for the real-life spectacle. What a band. What a show! But more than that, it was the crowd. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more diverse group of people at a show. Ages, walks of life, the whole bucket of (5-lb.) fish. Anyway, I had a little reporter’s notebook with me (inherent professionalism, perhaps, or maybe a twinge of guilt over the boondocking), and I had it out and was taking the set list and jotting down thoughts on the show and then this woman—middle-aged, maybe from the ‘burbs, certainly not fitting the profile of who you’d expect to see at what had become a pretty spicy meatball of a honkytonk show—elbows her way to me, looking me up and down and lingering on the press badge, and the notebook.

“Robert Earl Keen fuckin’ RULES. Put that in your goddamned notebook.”

And I did! I never wrote the story, but I’ve still got the notebook, and I’ve never forgot that woman or that show, and doubt I ever will. I’ve been to a few REK gigs since, but that one interaction at that first show really encapsulates, to me, the essence of Keen and his relationship with his daft, drunk, disparate fans.

Honestly, it’s like the Christmas song, the one that got so popular that Keen just decided to start doing Christmas tours built around that one song and its underlying conceit of mismatched, mongrel families in all their motley, ornery, lowbrow glory. If you’re reading this, you might well be going. You’re gonna have a real good time.

Robert Earl Keen rules. Feliz Navidad.

ROBERT EARL KEEN: THE SHINDIG INTERVIEW

SHINDIGMUSIC: You’re coming in to Fayetteville just as your new podcast has been gaining recognition, and the Christmas tour schedule looks intense. Do you anticipate recording any new episodes during the tour? Any chance you might interview an Arkansawyer for the podcast anytime soon?

Robert Earl Keen: It isn’t in the plan to record any during the Christmas tour. We did recently release an episode with Kevin from special guest, Shiny Ribs. It was a great time. You can check out that episode now!

I am excited about the upcoming episodes in December. I recorded a few episodes during Railbird Festival over on the grounds of Keeneland. Some great artists on there.

SHINDIGMUSIC: That song, “Levelland,” is very Texas. Another track, your take on Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway,” boasts one of my favorite lines from any song: “I don’t wear no Stetson/But I’m willing to bet, son/That I’m as big a Texan as you.” Does the mythology of Texas— monolithic in the American imagination, one often in contrast to the myriad ways Texans experience their state—play a large role in your songwriting process or the songs you choose to cover? Do you purposefully subvert or play into those ideas of Texas to tell your stories? Or is it just the air you breathe?

Robert Earl Keen: A lot of great songwriters have come out of Texas. Many of them great storytellers. Texas has many different landscapes with ever-changing topography. From the coastal plains to the high plains in Lubbock and Amarillo from the Piney Woods in east Texas to the Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas … Texas is ever evolving. Songwriting should be the same, ever changing with different views and descriptions of life as it happens. It is really not that much different. The Texas “sensibility” is basically comprised of hard work, being courageous and not afraid to take a chance. In my songwriting I try to emulate those same characteristics.

SHINDIGMUSIC: Even the license plates in Texas (older ones, anyway) reflect a larger-than-life frontier mythos, showing an archetypal cowboy silhouette underneath a space shuttle flying through the sky. Did your Houston upbringing instill a love of space in you, or is this year’s Apollo-themed Christmas show merely recognition of a monumental human achievement?

Robert Earl Keen: Being from Houston, the space program kind of overshadowed everything. My teacher rolled out the tv and we watched John Glenn circle the Earth. We were all hyper-aware of the space program. Every tv in Harris county was on the night of the lunar landing. I remember being home with parents, and I remember it being dark, and they did the whole Neil Armstrong step for mankind. I was old enough to feel like that was some great closure and huge milestone in our life as Americans. So fulfilling and heartwarming that we achieved the thing John Kennedy was talking about.

Also, my bass player, Bill Whitbeck, his dad worked for the atomic energy commission. When it was absolved after the bombings in WWII, they moved like 7 of the people from the commission to NASA and that was the beginning of NASA. His dad was the administrator of the group. Fun connection to the whole thing.

SHINDIGMUSIC: Your live shows have a well-deserved reputation of bringing together folks of all different stripes under the same rowdy roof (the amusing “I don’t want no fight, now” banter on No. 2 Live Dinner comes to mind), and “Merry Christmas from the Family” in particular speaks to a spirit of camaraderie amongst folks who find themselves bound by a commonality—kith and kin, maybe, or just kin-adjacent happenstance—they didn’t necessarily ask for. Does that feeling of comity translate to you on the stage? Is that a fulfilling aspect of your life as a touring musician? Or is that a sentiment felt more by fans than an artist?

Robert Earl Keen: Touring is easy if you have a good audience. The key is the audience. We have fantastic audiences. A friend put me on the phone with a woman just this evening. She had never heard of us, was mad at her husband for dragging her to the show and then told me that it was the best show she’d ever seen. She was so happy to talk about her discovery. Delightful discovery is better than free whiskey. Anyway, she was very happy.

SHINDIGMUSIC: Your last studio album, 2015’s Happy Prisoner, is a really cool take on a particular chapter of the Great American Songbook. Any plans to follow it up with another round of bluegrass reinterpretations? Or another genre? Can fans expect a new album soon?

Robert Earl Keen: I’m writing music right now for a new project. Stay tuned.

SHINDIGMUSIC: On the subject of covers, your Christmas shows are marked by a festive tone that includes props and costumes, an atmosphere that seems to lend itself to a few cover songs. Can the fans in Fayetteville expect to hear any out-of-left-field cover tunes on December 17th? Maybe a riff on the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” in honor of the Apollo 11 theme?

Robert Earl Keen: This show is a blast for the audience and a blast for us to do. This year fans can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and Christmas all in one night. The Countdown to Christmas show promises lunar tunes and looney times– the rest is top secret. We are always sure to include fan favorites like “Merry Christmas from The Family,” in addition the cosmic-themed covers.

ROBERT EARL KEEN “Countdown to Christmas” LIVE December, 17 at Walton Arts Center. Tickets ON SALE NOW.

Matt McNair

Matt McNair is a displaced hillperson currently living in Little Rock. Property values have declined as a result, but he is charming and his neighbors like him anyway. As a longtime Colleague of the Wise, he remains ever ready to produce pithy write-ups and to critique the poor clean-up efforts of large-scale music festivals. He is too loud, and once talked over Cake at one of those festivals while Cake was playing. He maintains to this day that Cake should have played louder.