Robert Earl Keen Is Looking for Charles Bowden

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One of half-dozen or so widely influential songwriters who rose like a flying saucer out of West Texas in the 1980s, Robert Earl Keen brings to the Rialto a colorful array of songs about love, murder, good times, geography and the human condition. He might also sing a couple from his new record, Are You Ready for Confetti.

Last week he updated us on Guy Clark’s health, where he got his knack with a great story, some new trends in his writing and his quest for Charles Bowden.

Linda Ray: What do you remember from your previous visits to Tucson? Any anecdotes?

Robert Earl Keen: You know I've been through Tucson for a long time, from the mid-nineties. I think Tucson's … I like it it's a cool town. It's unique. The only thing that's frustrating is the grid and the lights. The downtown grid and the traffic lights.

Now what I'm really interested in, what is that play? Waiting for Godot? Or looking for somebody? I'm looking for Charles Bowden, is what I want to do now.

I almost had a revelation about Charles Bowden. Not about groundwater or bats or immigration or anything, but just the fact that how beautiful true journalism can be. (His work) completely changed my mind. Because I'd been, like, a fiction guy all my life and I love fiction. And was kind of snobbish about nonfiction and I read some of his stuff and just went “Wow!” This is the kind of writer I would like to be if I were a writer. He's fantastic.

Your songs are such great stories about people you might run into on the midway of the county fair or something. Where did that facility come from? How did you discover or cultivate that storytelling thing?

It's two-fold. Part of it was that I read early on, and really liked the works of, say, John Cheever, or someone like that, or even something more well-known, like Catcher in the Rye, really, like sixth grade, so, I loved fiction. I loved storytelling.

But then I was also around a couple of true characters in my family that were storytellers. I guess that was where I really got the bug was I watched people's eyes light up and shift at their chairs, and laugh at this certain kind of event, and how this story evolves and how it moves everybody in a room.

The people that (I had in my) family that could really tell a story, and I had several of them, I mean really good ones — I would say if there was a contest they could definitely hold their own in the world of storytelling. So that was it.

So one was just the written word on the page, and how beautifully things happen on the page, and then how people get turned on by a great story and how they just give it of themselves. As an audience you give of yourself over to the entire belief that this is all real, and you can fall into it...and it just captured me totally.

It was very Texas-centric. There's no doubt about that. My brother is sort of a cowboy oil-wildcatter sorta guy and he's a great storyteller, and then the other one was my uncle who was just from a different time period altogether. His thing had to do with horses and crazy weird little-town festivals gone awry, and … one of the best stories ever was he and his dad, in the great depression, spent the very last money that they had, the whole family had, on a couple of Irish Wolfhounds to go track panthers in West Texas. The sum total of that story was they opened the box with these Irish Wolfhounds, and the wolfhounds took off, and they never saw them again!

Those great stories in your songs, there are so many words in songs like "Black Baldy Stallion" for example. What are the hardest of your songs for you to sing?

You know I went to see Guy (Clark) because he's been sick for awhile. It was about a year ago, and I thought he was really doing poorly. He comes and goes, and I didn't want to miss a chance to see him, and I didn't want him to die, and all that sort of stuff. So I went to see him. I was on the road, so I flew to Nashville and went to his house and spent the whole day with him and stuff. And he said “Let's play some songs.” Really truly doin' that thing—like in that song 'Desperados Waiting for a Train' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is30ylJOzkE) It was really scary! We were in his kitchen, you know? And playing these songs, and singing other verses of that old song, as the song says. And I played him Black Baldy Stallion (from the 2012 album Ready for Confetti) and he looks, he's rollin' a cigarette, and he looks up from the cigarette and he goes (in a deep, gruff voice imitating Clark), “That song's got too many words in it.” (Laughs like crazy.)

A really slow song that don't have a lot of words … the sustain is very difficult. I can't say that night after night they're hard because some nights I'm singing in better voice than I am on other nights, but songs that a really great singer could sing the hell out of, I have trouble with, sometimes. So I'm a lot better...it's kind of like painting by numbers. I'm singing by words.

I don't write songs for other people to sing. I tried to when I went to Nashville. I tried to. You know the vibe, from back then to today, is always writing a song for, quote-unquote, somebody, and what they like to sing, and what really gets them going and all that sort of stuff, which I think is a lot of hooey. A lot of street-psychology kinda crap, you know? I mean a good song is a good song. So, but the people spend a lot of time trying to figure out what a certain singer, particularly, a singer that is selling a lot of records at the time, would like to sing. And I just didn't have the heart for it. I just felt like, it was like, I don't know. Maybe it was too phoney or something. I just couldn't—maybe I'm not smart enough really to get into that sort of headspace. But I just couldn't get into it.

I mean, well I don't think that Townes ever spent any kind of time thinkin' about anybody else but what he was doing.

There's a little video about how loose and happy you wanted Ready for Confetti to sound. How many dark songs did you spin off trying to do the opposite?

I really want to continue to expand as far as writing. There was a record I made ten or 15 years ago (A Bigger Piece of Sky). I don't know if you did the body count but there were about 50 dead people in those songs if you added them all up. Lots of carnage in that one. Lessee, there's “Blow You Away,” there's “Whenever Kindness Fails,” there's the drunken craziness in “Corpus Christie Bay,” But most importantly, there is something I never play, which is called “Here in Arkansas” (spooky and atmospheric, like a ghost in a fog) which is just this scary, burnt up kind of thing. So I was trying to just go a different route with it (Ready for Confetti.)

One of the things that's really interesting is that I didn't ever really have a lot of confidence about all this stuff, and now I have this tremendous confidence. The only thing I'm not confident about is whether it will be a good song or not. What I am confident about is “Can I write a song about anything?” And the answer is “Yes. I can.”

And so I just sorta tried to switch my perspective, and I thought it would be fun to be more on the sunny side of life for a little while. So that was the idea was just to be a little more in awe, not quite as jaded in my perspective.

I read somewhere that in 20 some years of songwriting, the songs on Ready for Confetti are the first you've written on the road. Why the change?

I ran out of time. A long time ago I tried to write some stuff (on the road) and it was just so pathetic and lackluster that I decided that “Well, I'm doing a job here. I'm out on the road, I'm doin' that, I'll pay attention to what I'm doin' in here. I won't worry about trying to double-up and overtax myself. I seem to be always obsessed with overtaxing myself. I don't know what that's about.

The other thing is I felt like that was kind of silly. I got that in my mind that I really couldn't write on the road. So it became somewhat of a challenge. I thought, “I can do this,” and I needed to, because I really was out of time, and I had lots and lots of shows, and I already had a plan with Lloyd (Maines) to make another record, so I didn't want to start pulling the plug on all that.

But I'm doing more than ever! It's crazy. I looked at the schedule at the end of December for 2013, and I thought “Great! I've got a lot of time, you know, to think about other stuff and work on other things.” I tell you, really truly, from the first of the year through the 15th of January, the whole damn calendar filled in. I don't know how it did, cuz those guys never worked, like all the booking agents and all those people that I work with, they never worked at that time of year, but they did. I don't know what was goin' on. I guess they were hungover and didn't want to go anywhere but work.

So, man my calendar totally filled up, and it just keeps filling up daily. I would really truly like to take some time off sometimes. I've been working really hard for the last, I don't know, five years. It seems really hard, just from one thing to another. So this year I was thinking in terms of maybe taking it easy.

I had some plans about writing with some other people this year, and that kind of went by the wayside. And I'm working on a novel, and I want to finish that, but that takes a total different kind of headspace. It is lonely, and I'm not a great prose writer, so it doesn't really just flow, you know? I'm gonna have to work at it really hard.

It’s been almost a year since Ready for Confetti. How much of the show will you devote to it do you think? Will we hear any new material?

No, it'll be that, and what happens is these days we have so many different layers of fans. Truly, now I have children and grandchildren of the original fans. So when they come, they don't want to hear Ready for Confetti. They want to hear “The Front Porch Song” (from 1984's No Kinda Dancer). They want to hear the Christmas song (“Merry Christmas From the Family” from the single). They want to hear “Swerve...” (“Swervin' in My Lane,” also from No Kinda Dancer).

So I worked through this years ago, you know where people are asking for your old stuff and you want to play your new stuff. It's every artist's dilemma. And the way I worked through it was, like, “Look, they're not asking me to play crap that I don't know!” You know? Or somebody else's songs. They're asking me to play my songs. I get out there and I play a bunch of that, and I play, a bunch of stuff that I like and a bunch of stuff that's new.

I mean that's within a two-hour space. I don't sit out there and just keep 'Hey! What else would you like to hear?' I don't do that.

They're asking for my songs, so why do I have to be a hard ass about it? I don't. So I'm not goin' to.

Anything else you want to make sure to say before we end this?

The fact that … what a great live show we are. I mean, that's what clicks it for people. Everybody goes ( in a goofy voice) “Oh I've been a fan for 15 years, man, this is the first show I've ever seen. I wish I'd have gone 15 years ago. This is incredible!” It all comes together. So if there's somebody out there thinking about buying a ticket or coming to a show, quit thinking about it and come to the show. Because it really puts it all together, it puts the whole package together to be able to see and feel the presence, you know?

Robert Earl Keen plays the Rialto Theatre at 8 p.m. on April 5, with Andrea Davidson. Tickets are $29 at the door.

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