Troubadour Keen talks of shotguns, songwriting - and Toby Keith

CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press
CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press
Posted: January 24, 2012

Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen has always had the knack for writing witty, sharply observed story-songs that showcase literary flair but don't take themselves too seriously.

Starting with No Kinda Dancer in 1984 and up to the fine new Ready for Confetti, the 55-year-old Americana artist has built a following of admirers who shout along to his party songs and might even notice that the good times always come with a cost.

Along with his holiday classic, "Merry Christmas From the Family," Keen is probably best known for his outlaw saga "The Road Goes on Forever." The mostly lighthearted, Lloyd Maines-produced Ready for Confetti includes the philosophical "Lay Down My Brother," the gospel standard "Soul of Man," and "The Road Goes On and On," a stinging salvo at country superstar Toby Keith, who Keen feels borrowed too heavily from "The Road Goes on Forever" in his 2010 hit "Bullets in the Gun."

On the phone from Kerrville, Texas, Keen talked about his place in the evolving music business, what inspired him to call out Keith as "a loudmouthed fool," and whether he has as many shotguns as he told the New Yorker in 2010.

Keen and his band make a rare Philadelphia appearance at Union Transfer on Wednesday.

Question: Do you really own 25 shotguns?

Answer: I always say, "You can't have too many guitars or shotguns." . . . I do like shotguns, and I do like bird hunting.

Q: In the notes to Ready for Confetti, you write that until a few years ago "I thought the world and my creative trajectory were one. I probably even thought of myself as a world antenna, cosmically gathering data and disseminating vital information."

A: I thought there was this whole plan. You write this kind of song, and things happen. And in some cases, things do happen: You work really hard on getting a record deal or playing someplace you want to play, and you get to do it.

But it occurred to me that everything's swirling around in the cosmos and it's not under your control at all. . . . If you're able to step back and look at it, it all has a certain beauty anyway, regardless of your involvement or my involvement.

Q: You wrote these songs on the road, which is a departure.

A: The compilation, the album, the group of songs, is just completely disintegrating as we speak. So I wanted to get out there and make another one. . . . I wrote them in green rooms, on buses, and, God forbid, motel rooms. . . . But I did overcome, and felt the songs I put on the record were good.

Q: How are they different?

A: Didn't think about them as much. I can fuss over a couple of words for a week or so. I just went, "Good enough. It's colorful, has a beat. You can dance to it. There you go."

Q: Did you write "The Road Goes On and On" that way?

A: I was in a motel room in Beverly Hills, of all places. I was strumming and it just popped into my head.

I was really in a quandary about what I should do. People told me I should sue Toby Keith. People were sending me texts, saying "What are you going to do about this, he stole your song?" And I thought, "I damn sure don't plan on suing the guy."

Q: Why not?

A: I don't like lawsuits. It only gives money to lawyers. I've watched people fritter away five years of their life waiting on their settlement. My mom was a lawyer. It doesn't seem like anybody wins, really.

Q: What's the reaction been?

A: People know all the words and they're all giving me the thumbs-up, or shooting me the finger, but in a good way. [Laughs] It's been fun. . . . It's kind of a big weight off my shoulders. I did what people have been doing in songwriting for years: I answered him in a song.

Q: Have you heard anything from Toby Keith?

A: Never heard a thing. I'm sure they heard it.

Q: How many shows a year do you do?

A: We're out 180 days a year, and do about 120 shows.

Q: In 1994, you lived in Philadelphia when you were in Chippy, the musical with Joe Ely, Terry Allen, and a bunch of other Texas songwriters.

A: I just remember thinking every day, "This is the most fun thing I've ever done in my life." And it was fun, man. Going to all those bars afterward, and then you'd meet back up at the theater the next day.

Q: How have your record sales done as the industry's collapsed?

A: From about 1996 to 2004, I did about 100,000 with each of them. Then it fell apart, and now I do about half of that. So I'm still hanging in there, I'm still relevant. . . . But I'm not sure if people are doing anything except downloading their favorite songs.

Q: How about as an artist? Don't you need the focus of making an album when you go into the studio?

A: If you think of it like a basketball team, you wouldn't have LeBron James if you didn't have all these other guys around him. You can't just write a hit. You have to write all this other stuff before you get to the point where one of those songs is really stellar. To have the pinnacle, you've got to have the foundation.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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