We were hoping to post this earlier but life has a way of manifesting itself in strange ways. We had the opportunity to interview one of the greatest indie songwriters of the past 30 years, just before he was scheduled to play the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and introduce his new music. He is currently in the studio working on making these songs available to his massive fan base. We only wish we could have been there for the show.
Robert Earl Keen has been a staple on the indie music scene for the past 30 years. Here is our interview
IVB: Who would you say was your biggest influence?
REK: My most famous influence was Willie Nelson. I liked Willie before Willie was cool. If ya want to get a hint of that, pull up the Ernest Tubb show. Willie was the special guest every week.
The person I tried to emulate was Norman Blake. I spent hundreds of hours trying to play like Norman. I know many of his songs and a few of his covers. I recorded “Billy Gray” on Walking Distance and I first heard “Poor Ellen Smith” on Norman’s record. I recorded that song on my 2015 Bluegrass album Happy Prisoner.
IVB: Do you think that you have now moved into the role of influencer?
REK: What is the difference between truth telling and bragging? There are so many people tooting their horns, I have a hard time with that question. As human beings, we all influence things constantly. We all share in this experience. I’ve never been one for staking a claim on credit. Here’s a short story that might enlighten you pertaining to that question:
TWENTY YEARS AGO there was a guy who owned a club in central Texas. It was a quasi-dance club that catered to country music fans. When an artist would call to pitch for a chance to play the club, this club owner would ask, “Are you a Robert Earl Keen or are you a Hat Act?” I always got a kick out of that.
IVB: Have your influences changed since you first began making music? If so, what has changed?
REK: I used to be frightened to death of the studio. Mostly it was about the cost of making a record, but I also played with incredible musicians and far be it from me to waste their time. I have more money now and I’m comfortable with the fact that recording takes time and diligence. My playing is still mediocre at best, but I love the studio. I try things now I never imagined. It’s an incredible place to create music. In the past, I had to keep all the music in my head. Now I can work one song at a time and get the exact treatment I’m looking for in every song. As to influences, I love classical music. I’ve come to understand that classical music is all about placement and nuance. Classical music provides us with a map to understand recording like no other music can do. Volume changes, tone, or how many instruments one uses to support the musical phrase. Classical music has had the biggest influence on my musical thinking for the past ten years.
IVB: Do you think the Americana industry itself has changed, or is the change more personal?
REK: Americana has changed drastically. Here’s a credit grabber for you. I was the original poster boy for Americana when it was created by Gavin Magazine in 1996 or 97. I don’t remember the year. I’m on the cover.
There was a gold rush like campaign to control and define Americana music. In the beginning, it was wide open. Americana included everyone from the folk scene – Greg Brown, Bill Morrissey, Patty Larkin, John Gorka, Dar Williams and so many others. Americana included west coasters – Dave Alvin, Norton Buffalo, Rosie Flores, all kinds of jam bands. But it was Nashville who won out in the end. Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Drive By Truckers, Patti Griffin, Lucinda Moore, Buddy Miller, and Jim Lauderdale were among the Nashville group. I was lucky to be included in that group.
The field is much smaller now, but the amount of music that is out there in the world of Americana, and specifically the Nashville brand, is seemingly infinite. I feel like I’m always changing. In that way I’m the same as I always was.
Wow, that was fun – it was such a honor to interview Keen and to hear his thoughts on the genre that inspired him and supported him all these years. We look forward to hearing his new songs.