Texan Robert Earl Keen has built a following in Utah with his cinematic songwriting and rocking country shows. He's made a name as a musical yarn-spinner with tunes like the heart-of-gold outlaw tale of "The Road Goes on Forever"; or the plight of the undocumented, as in "Mariano"; or a timing's-just-off romance like "Rose Hotel."
And it's a fact that Keen has always surrounded himself with musicians whose talents have been fine-tuned in Texas dance halls. Many have played alongside Keen for much of his nearly 30-year career.
Keen and the band headline the Ogden Music Festival on Saturday, June 2, with a set featuring favorites as well as songs from his latest, "Ready for Confetti," which arrived last year.
In an interview also broadcast on Sunday on the KRCL radio station, Keen said he looks forward to playing his first date in Ogden. He has played in Salt Lake City and Park City multiple times.
"We always seem to do pretty well in Utah, though," he said, calling from the road near Gruene, Texas, where he and the band were headed for another gig. "Utah's always one of those ones where you go, 'Now that was a good one. Happy to be there.' "
Hall of Famer
In March, Keen was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriter Hall of Fame along with college pal Lyle Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt.
Included in the lineup on the night of the awards was Steve Earle, paying homage to Van Zandt. Earle recently released an all-Van Zandt tribute album, "Townes."
"Steve did a great talking blues about Towns and his life," said Keen. "It was beautiful."
Not only are Earle and Lovett contemporaries of his in the music business, Keen said, they were good friends back in their up-and-coming years playing in and around Austin's music scene.
"These days, we just don't get to see each other much, and it was really surprisingly warm and fun," said Keen. "We had some real laughs and got onstage and played together -- and we hadn't done that in 25 years, I guess. In fact, all three of us, I am not sure that ever happened, except maybe for somebody's living room." He laughed. "And Steve and I, at least, would both have been too drunk to remember back then."
Rumors have long abounded that Keen and Lovett were roommates at Texas A&M in College Station. But Keen said that they were not, but were assuredly neighbors and pals. "In fact, Lyle lived right down the street. We were about four houses apart."
The two met in 1976, when Lovett was an A&M journalism major and Keen an English major. Both loved music and were starting to compose about that time.
"We had a lot of the same classes together," said Keen of Lovett. "He wasn't the rough-and-tumble sort of beer-drinking guy I (typically) hung around with. He was really smart and really good and we just got to where we hung around all the time, because he knew stuff I didn't know and vice versa, and we've been good friends ever since."
For "Ready For Confetti," Keen brought in the same crew he had for his 2009 album, "The Rose Hotel." He used the same principal players -- "my band, essentially" -- as well as storied producer Lloyd Maines and engineer Pat Manske.
The big change for Keen this outing was that he wrote the songs for the album on the road -- something he had virtually never tried before. "I don't write much on the road. It's a danger. You have too many songs about hotel rooms."
Keen thinks he avoided that trap on the album, yet kept the rhythm of movement in the mix.
"These songs are good and strong -- and they get the road across. One thing I found different is there is not too much of my signature weaving-in-and-out lyrics. These are pretty straightforward."
Another thing he did differently: He didn't worry about how long a song was, for a change. And by doing so, he might have written shorter than usual.
"I've never had much thought about boundaries, so far as how long a song was. People would say, 'That's a great song, but it is four and a half minutes long, and I'd say, 'So what?' You know, is there a standard? A legislative act not allowing the writing of a song more than three minutes long?
"Yeah, I was kind of prickly about that. So with this one, I just said, 'You know, I am just going to write these songs, and when they end, they end.' And I think they turned out a bit shorter, pithier."
Keen said he wrote most of the material one song at a time, in single sit-down sessions -- which is typical for him.
"I am pretty good about finishing songs. One exception is my signature song, 'The Road Goes on Forever.' I wrote four or five verses, and then I put it down for months."
"The Road Goes on Forever" is a rocking Bonnie-and-Clyde-style tale of two ne'er-do-wells. The supergroup The Highwaymen made it a hit, and the fan favorite is the eternal show-closer at a Keen show.
"I got to a point with that song where I had to decide what really would happen there -- how to portray it correctly and make it work. ... So I just set it down and let it incubate a while. However, in general, I am good about sitting down and writing a song from start to finish.
"And then comes a bit of editing. I love that editing -- changing a word out or adding one in, supplementing a melody, or augmenting a melody, with a chord change. But in general, if I finish a song, and then sit down across from you and play it to you all by myself, that is pretty much how that song is going to turn out."
- WHO: Robert Earl Keen
- WHAT: Ogden Music Festival
- WHEN: 9:30 p.m. June 2
- WHERE: Fort Buenaventura Park, 2450 ‘A’ Ave., Ogden
- TICKETS: Friday or Sunday, June 1 or 3: $20/advance $25/at the gate; Saturday, June 2: $25, $30/day of; three-day pass, $50/advance or $55/day of. Tickets and information available from www.ofoam.org.