Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don’t spare the confetti

Texas songwriter’s latest work is music worth celebrating

Express Staff Writer

Expressive Texan Robert Earl Keen says he’s “Ready for Confetti” with his latest album, which reflects a new chapter in his life that he projects will be bright and colorful and exciting. His performance at Whiskey Jacques’ on Thursday night is sold out. Photo credit Peter Figen

Sundays at our house mean Mom gets control of the disc changer. And, as my daughter only slightly apologetically told her friend on a recent afternoon, "If you're wondering, the music is Texas stuff. It's a lot of songs to teach us about our heritage."

On this day we had dug into Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, two friends hailing from around my hometown of Houston, the latter of whom will be at Ketchum's Whiskey Jacques', Thursday, May 31. Keen, who was inducted alongside Lyle into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame earlier this year, is touring with his 16th release, "Ready for Confetti." Critics say that while it's light, it could be the most approachable and among the best of his career. It reminds longtime fans, most of whom came on board with his "Gringo Honeymoon" phase, why he's considered one of the finest musical storytellers today.

The portability of music has made for cross-cultural pollination and rendered the heartache of moving far from our roots a little more tolerable.

But having a guy from your hometown bring the music you love to you in person is like the anticipation of reuniting with a long-lost friend, the one you always made time for a few beers with and ended up in some smoky dance hall two-stepping to a whiskey or 12 until it was time to hit the cantina for a predawn burrito.

And then you move on and forget that feeling for a while until you hear that song again and you miss that person and you think, it's time we got together again.

My relationship with Robert Earl Keen's music is like that, and after speaking to him a few weeks ago now, I've been floating on the conversation, knowing a kindred spirit was about to be in my nest here in Ketchum, someone who speaks my language.

For a change, the non-Texans in the audience will be the ones trying to understand the stories in his music, and I will watch. There is a lasting love to be had here if you just take the time, over a beer or two, to listen.

"I can go back to the first stuff that I wrote, and there is always the subtle message," he said from his Hill Country ranch in Bandera, Texas. "There are more occasions I have been more direct, but what I love about songwriting is the discovery. I'm not about 'let's all clap and oh my god this means this.' It's more multi-faceted. I like to package my didactic in a cool story and a prose that people can figure out with time. I think that helps with the longevity—if it continues to intrigue."

Keen has always been fascinated by wordplay and the power of language. He wrote his first songs in elementary school, majored in English in college and was a newspaper reporter.

"I was in a second-grade singing contest and it was terrible but I felt like it was where I needed to be. I learned the guitar and wherever there was a bar without a local act, I said, 'I'm your local act.'"


That patience to create a following began back in college at Texas A&M where he and roommate Lovett decided to start putting his stories to music and taking it around town.

For a musician who relies on his intuitive sense of word order to create, he has an equally averse reaction to the formulaic process of studio work.

"What's on my radar is just the next show. I'm a one-show-at-a-time guy—the 12-step world of music," he said with a chuckle. "I'm in the 5 percent that loves performing. There's a handful of us that were born for the stage, and will die on it."

Though he says he loves fame and everything that comes with it, even the autograph-hungry fans, he's not poised for

commercial success, which this album could bring.

The first time he was invited to a hospital opening where an old song of his, "I'll be Good For You," had been selected as its theme song, he stumbled through the performance.

"Nobody said I was going to have to sing it. It was my song, but I don't listen to it over and over. I have a good memory but I couldn't recall the words. I was doing a total Mr. Bean, hollering out these sounds like some kind of crippled calf. Then they asked me to try and do it again at the end of the performance. I ended up getting so drunk that they had to carry my ass off just so we could blame the alcohol."

That anomaly aside, it is his live performances that have made him king. He said getting a notice to come to the Heritage ceremony was "like getting an invitation to someone's graduation and you don't know who they are." But once he got there and reunited with Lovett, it turned out to be a great deal of fun and it set the tone for 2012.

"I'm a strong believer in your year follows up what happens in the first 90 days, and things have been going pretty well."

Some suggest his softening with "Ready for Confetti" is an indication that he is ready for a commercial career.

"I'm the Labrador retriever of music, I want people to love me whether I'm playing to two people or 10. Or, 20,000 is nice too. Self-emulation is suicide and I'm not into suicide. I always try and push the envelope, always. I know that I've lost people, but I've always tried to expand musically—that's my weakness."

However, Keen said he relies on being true to himself, which means sticking to a "rough-hewn careless attitude."

What he really aches to do though, is a musical.

"I like all of them—"Lion King," "Wicked," all the big ones—they have an ebb and flow that I feel like I understand, unlike country music where you have the 300 must-use words for a country song. You're only restricted by the theme, not the language. I think I have the chops to do it."

Until then, he'll be putting on the best one-off shows he can, and taking the time to appreciate the crowd.

"I stand out signing stuff for fans who even while they are hugging you and wanting to take your picture they say stuff like 'don't you hate this?' This is part of it, it's all together and connected to the next. In my way of thinking, in my way of what you do if you were building chairs or building boat motors, you have to put your passion in it all the way."

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