Texas singer/songwriter returns to Vail
VAIL, Colorado -As Robert Earl Keen sees it, some people are given gifts. While one person might be able to hit home runs in baseball, another might have a talent for skiing. Keen is a quintessential Texas country singer/songwriter but its the second part of that description that the affable musician considers his gift.”It just seemed like I could always (write songs) … you thank heaven for any of the gifts you get,” he said. In his biography, Keen explains it best: “I don’t know why, but I always have stories – they don’t all have to be true, just good. If I could put a subtitle on my best songs, it would be ‘based on a good story.'”Indeed, some of Keen’s most notable songs – “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon,” and his more recent “The Rose Hotel” – are homespun stories, something you can imagine him telling you about while bellied up to a bar, sipping whiskey in some crumbling West Texas dive.
It’s no wonder Keen excels on the narrative side of things – he was an English major at Texas A&M. He even roomed with Lyle Lovett while there. Though Keen began writing poems at the age of 5, he didn’t consider his rhymes as song lyrics until he started playing guitar when he was 18.And this songwriter has a simple formula for knowing when he’s discovered harmonious gold.”The test of a good song is if they seem to get better with time,” he said. “When it falls thin after you sing it 10 or 12 times, it means they won’t hold up.”Keen’s latest album, “The Rose Hotel,” includes some notable guest appearances – Billy Bob Thornton on the song “10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar” and singer/songwriter Greg Brown, who swaps verses with Keen on Brown’s own “Laughing River.” “I’ve found that making big plans for records is somewhat of a waste of time, in the music business particularly,” Keen said. “That works out for me because I’m not much of a planner. I’ve found if you keep your ears open while you’re working on a record, people show up who can contribute.”Thorton, for one, showed up in a bar, where he met Keen’s road manager. And Brown happened to be playing in Texas for the first time in 15 years at the same time Keen was working on “Laughing River.””All that stuff just fell together, it seems like it was meant to be,” Keen said.
Keen sometimes has to force himself to sit down and put pen to pad. “It takes discipline, especially at this point in my life and career,” he said. “It’s not like back in the days when I was singing in some farmhouse, strumming on a guitar, spitting Copenhagen in a bucket and only worried about how much beer’s in the fridge. I don’t have that lifestyle anymore.”The last time Keen played a show in town was in early 2007, at the now-razed 8150. Keen, for one, didn’t spend much time grieving.”It’s where people came to bounce on the floor more than see the show,” Keen remembered. “The day they tore that down I was in a bar somewhere and I toasted its demise. Though I’m sure it made for many happy moments for people.”Before that show in 2007, he told The Vail Trail that people better get out to see one of his shows while they still could – “I’m old and I might die at any time so you better get your ass out and see the show,” he said. Well Keen hasn’t gone anywhere. And really it sounds like he has a lot more to do before he does. Like sharing some of the lessons he’s learned with the younger generation of musicians.”I’d like to get involved with teaching some things, like how to avoid the numerous pitfalls in the entertainment industry, and how to be true to yourself and still enjoy your art,” he said. “Maybe I just want to talk, I don’t know, but I do think there is meaning to life and you spend half of your life accruing knowledge and self satisfaction, and then it’s your turn to give back. “We come into this world empty and we leave empty.”High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or email@example.com.