Talking Texas with troubadour Robert Earl Keen
Listen to Robert Earl Keen's full album, The Rose Hotel.
Robert Earl Keen, Jr., is Texas through and through. Raised in Houston and now living in Kerrville, near Austin, Keen has made his name by writing sweeping literary songs full of rich characters he observes in the Texas countryside. Over the course of twenty-five years and fourteen albums, he’s become one of the preeminent alt-country artists, staying firmly outside of the Nashville machine while garnering plaudits from everyone from George Strait to Dave Matthews. Recently released, The Rose Hotel is his first studio album in four years and contains moments of vintage Keen, along with a more robust sound thanks to production work by pedal-steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines. Here the Texas legend talks songwriting, vegetables, and why the road occasionally has to come to an end.
What was the mind-set going into the making of The Rose Hotel?
I have a lot of great fans, but they’ve told me they have a tough time converting their friends. I’m a bit of an acquired taste, and I wanted to give those fans the opportunity to share the songs without any sort of disclaimers like “This song has someone vomiting in it or a bunch of people getting killed.” I wanted it to be immediate.
You’re an acquired taste in what way?
I’ve always blamed it on my voice. I’m not much of a singer; I’m a songwriter. Some people like my voice. Others think I just can’t sing. People are aware of what I’m doing in the vein of alt-country or Texas music, but they don’t really know until they come to a show and they see how good the band is and how much fun we’re having. That’s when the acquired taste kicks in: All of a sudden they like brussels sprouts.
How much has Texas influenced your music?
A sense of place is my most important mental exercise when I write. Because I come from that part of the country, a lot of my stuff gets started with that whole landscape. It becomes my canvas, and I start painting my ass off. Like [The Rose Hotel’s] “On and On.” I was looking out at this girl ride this horse and I thought, I’m starting right here. When I’ve got that sense of place, it throws up a picture in my head. Do I ever get what I want out of the creative process? That’s the pot of gold, but sometimes I get pretty close.
Where do you write?
I have a shack on my ranch called the Scriptorium. It’s four hundred square feet tops, with a bunch of guitars, books, and a little bitty refrigerator. No TV or phone. And I just go out there and bang away. I’ve got a bunch of books, a lot of Western pulp fiction, Zane Grey, stuff like that. And, of course, Cormac McCarthy.
What’s your favorite McCarthy book?
Blood Meridian, no question. But I will say that Cities of the Plain is the most underrated.
Have you ever met him?
No, I haven’t. And I don’t think I want to. I totally support him being a recluse. I think it’s important to maintain the mystery. I remember seeing him on The Oprah Winfrey Show after The Road came out, and a friend and I were talking later that our favorite authors should be read and not heard.