A great storyteller with an eye for detail that others might miss, Robert Earl Keen has gone from a Texas A&M college student just learning the guitar, and getting kicked out of the band when his friends got serious about playing, to one of the leading Texas-style country performers in the U.S.
His almost legendary roadhouse status is now being fueled out Washington, D.C., way, reportedly rating as the favorite artist of the presidential wins, Jenna and Barbara Bush.
But, in the way his songs come across, he takes his coast-to-coast popularity in stride.
“The thing everybody who gets into music seems so completely consumed with today is, ‘How can I be a star?’ but I never thought about running to L.A. or Nashville, I didn’t put myself in that position,” Keen said. “It was mostly just ‘How can I entertain people and sell a few more records, I sing pretty good, maybe I can be on TV someday.’”
Keen will perform Thursday, March 10, at Juanita’s Cantina Ballroom. If any tickets remain at the door, they are $26. Showtime is 9 p.m., with newgrass acoustic trio the Greencards opening.
It’s Keen’s first return to Little Rock and Juanita’s in several years. He says he spent summers in Arkansas as a child visiting relatives.
“I love Little Rock. I spent a week there once, had a great time,” he said. “This guy I’ve played with since that time, Mike Willey, he calls me up and says, ‘I got this gig for us. I know I’ve never played with you, but you gotta P.A. system?’ We went up there and played for a week, stayed at some ol’ haunted mansion on the Arkansas River. It was a great time.”
Keen’s finely detailed songs are about “things that people are interested in,” he says. He’ll admit that his songs are an acquired taste, but when listeners get that taste, they’ll start memorizing every word of such songs as “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon” and “Amarillo Highway.”
“I could always write stuff, I had a pretty good imagination when I sat down with a pen and paper,” he said. “I started out as a kid making songs out of tunes I already knew. Oddly enough, though, I didn’t pick up an instrument until college. When I played guitar in college, it started seeming like it was a natural thing to do, to make up songs. It was an evolving process, and it’s always an evolving process.”
Keen’s newest CD, his 11th, will be released in May. It was produced by his regular touring guitarist, Rich Brotherton, as was his lastest release, “Farm Fresh Onion.”
“I do strive for painting a picture,” he said of his songwriting. “And I’ll say this, and this might be a universal feeling for people who write, but when I write I create a movie in my head with this song, and every time I perform the song it always looks the same … That’s what I’m unconsciously striving for, the stamp or brand that makes each image indelible.”
So, from starting out in string bands and bluegrass bands in the early days after college, his compositions are now covered by myriad singer-songwriters. “It justifies that you decided to call yourself a songwriter. Somebody does your song, you know you’re doing something right. I guess I spend an hour a day saying I know what I’m doing, then the next 23 I’m trying to figure everything out.”