Robert Earl Keen’s music has been described as country music for people who hate country music. So what does he do to take the hate out of it? “I don’t sing 90 percent love songs,” the singer said by phone last week from his Texas home. “And the songs that I do sing about love, they’re not about how over the top I’m in love. It’s not about me,” he laughs. “How about that?
It’s not quite that simple. Keen has made a name for himself writing quirky songs that sound like a collaboration between Shel Silverstein, Will Rogers, and the Devil. Keen’s characters are more often than not whiskey-soaked wanders, rebels without a clue. His wry sense of humor extends to places as well. ” I understand why lizards live in sunny Arizona/but why people do and call it home/I’ll never understand,” he quips on “Furnace Fan,” from his latest album, Farm Fresh Onions.
What’s harder to understand is why critics, including Rolling Stone persist in calling Keen’s music country rock, like it was some Eagles-Byrds hybrid. Keen says he just has to accept the characterization.
“I would accept that if I were looking for a certain kind of food or something like that,” he says in a slow drawl that’s not discernibly Texan, but just the laid back attitude of a man who’s used to taking his time to get his point across. “Country rock works about as good as anything cause at least it sounds like it might be fun and energetic as opposed to new age folk, or ahh–Americana.” The singer admits he would have no problem with that label if it just had a little bit broader audience as far as people who actually knew what it meant.
At one time, Keen was even comfortable being called a folk singer. “I never had a problem with it until A Mighty Wind and then when I saw that, I realized that’s what a lot of people thought about it,” Keen says of the movie and tour featuring the Spinal Tap cast masquerading as pompous stuffed shirt folkies. After that display, the singer is keen on putting some modifiers on the label as applied to him. ” I never done no ramblin’–that’s not exactly what I care about. So in the great singer-songwriter troubadour kind of thing, yes I’m all for the folk label. We’re a family band, but playing the zither, no way.”
Keen believes that the release of Farm Fresh Onions is the defining point of his career. “I think it’s the best record I ever made,” the singer says proudly. “I love the record, I love the sound. To me, its kinda like if you don’t like it, you don’t like me, because this is really what I’m about, particularly in this stage.”
There have been some changes to his sound over the years. Keen admits to being a “total acoustic queer ” in an earlier incarnation, unable to stand anything that was cranked up or run through amps, and particularly hated keyboards. The singer still professes a love for acoustic music, but is comfortable making a living with electricity as well. “There’s quite a few plugs being used in this record,” Keen says. “So some old fans may be disappointed. But like I said, I love it.”