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Lyrics Make the Man

Robert Earl Keen takes songwriting very seriously


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As Americana artist and legend Robert Earl Keen—who actually has been credited at times with inventing the "Americana" genre—describes the tiny one-room limestone songwriting hideaway that he lovingly calls his "scriptorium," my imagination travels to a state of tranquil lucidity.

Almost immediately, I am standing amid a small gathering of tchotchkes gazing out into the Texas countryside where Keen writes the rustic plain-speak, feel-good lyrics fans have clamored for the past 30 years.

"[The Scriptorium] is really sparse," explains the 57-year old Keen in a soft, not-quite-obvious southern voice during an interview with the Source. "I got a little ice box with some deer sausage in it, and some crackers. My view from there is about 20 miles of valley. You can see where the Medina River flows south. I'm in the hill country of Texas, and from where I sit I can see how it becomes one long plain. It's no longer hilly or rocky."

As a bowling pin painted to resemble "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski and a movie poster of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood look on, Keen finds his muse in the seclusion.

"I've written songs on the road, in fact I wrote almost all of Ready for Confetti [2011] on the road, but writing at [the Scriptorium] is a lot better," says Keen. "My song 'The Great Hank,' which is an interesting dream-like song would have never happened in a situation with people around. I literally laid down on the floor when I wrote that one. I just strummed the guitar and looked up at the ceiling."

Keen released his debut album No Kinda Dancer in 1984, building on early front-porch jam sessions with Texas A&M college buddy Lyle Lovett. Since then he's collaborated with several country music A-listers and has released 17 studio and live albums. He is known for his fable-in-a-song style of writing and his Jimmy Buffet-like country ditties become instant sing-a-long classics. Ask a Keen fan to name their favorite and they will claim a song as if he wrote it for specifically for them.

But Keen claims the evolving music industry is diluting the craft he made into a career.

"Some of these people can't write a lyric worth a damn," Keen exclaims. "They think because they can sing it and put it on a recording that it's a good song. But there are some really lame ass lyrics these days. I'm all for great singing, but get yourself a songwriter that can write you a song. Then make it happen."

And sometimes, when the kind of storytelling Keen conjures up is imitated, the singer is less than thrilled. Just listen to the torching three minute indictment laid out in Keen's song "The Road Goes On and On" for proof.

"I used to try and be really coy about it but people eventually figured it out," said Keen. "Toby Keith rode all over my song 'The Road Goes on Forever' with his song 'Bullets in the Gun.' It's exactly the same story and the cadence is the same, the melody is almost the same. I'm not a fan of lawsuits and that nastiness that people love, so I thought the best way to do it was to get back at him with a song. I know he heard it, I know he knows about it, and he never said a word. That's smart."

Even a more flattering form of imitation—one that wasn't a straight rip-off—wouldn't be Keen's choice for measuring the success he's had. He's also not entirely sure about his place in the history of Americana. Rather, he is content to let those chips fall where they may, and instead just keeps writing down the songs in his head.

"I absolutely embrace Americana, and there are some things that I would tell you flat out that I figured out and was a part of early on. I staked my claim in this area when everyone else wanted to be pop stars. I was happy just playing small rodeos and such but I think only time can tell you how much influence you've had over things. Whatever I'm doing I must be doing it well because I'm still here."

Robert Earl Keen

7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 1

Tower Theatre

835 N.W. Wall St.

Tickets $31-$49 at

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...


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