Robert Earl Keen is an artist who needs no introduction. You probably know him best for the hit “The Road Goes on Forever”, which has been covered by giants such as The Highwaymen and Joe Ely. That being said, he has plenty more under his belt, including 19 albums over the last 30 years. By phone, he discussed his upcoming pay-per-view show Western Chill, how COVID-19 has affected his music, and some of his other jobs, including working on an oil rig.
Americana Highways: Tell me about the Western Chill show. How did it come about?
Robert Earl Keen: When COVID hit in March, I got a request for some streaming to say hi to my dad and uncle. I started doing a little bit of stuff in my office. I rapidly found that I hated the quality of the whole phone thing. I upgraded to a camera and a little more sound. I still was looking for a better visual, more backdrops, get better sound. It was about the beginning of May, I decided I was getting tired of digging through all this. We have a place in Medina, Texas, where we used to live. It’s way out in the country. I have a big barn that we call The Snake Barn. I thought maybe I could turn The Snake Barn into some kind of video facility. I went out there and found a welder. He installed a grid in the ceiling. I blew insulation on it and put air conditioning on it, bought some more cameras, got some more sound equipment, then made a kind of studio with the band and me. Somewhere in early June, I started thinking I get so tired of the record cycle and all the game playing. I just want to play. I thought of this idea of coming up with a theme and bringing the whole band in on it. This isn’t just about me being a frontman. It’s about all of us. We wrote some songs, put them together and play these songs. We started working on it, coming out here and rehearsing. These guys would say how about this or that song? It really has to match the theme Western Chill. It’s gotta be really laid back, not a lot of upbeat stuff. It’s got to be warm and friendly and just a good vibe. These guys all write songs, and they brought some things to me. Then we put this whole thing together and shot it. At that point, we shot it with four cameras. There were a couple obstacles in the visual on that. I called the guy that came out with his crew and told him we need to shoot it again. He said, “Are you kidding me?” I told him it’s gotta be really bright. I want it to look good and sound good to match these songs. We shot it again. Consequently, I worked out this deal with Nugs. I had the format, and I wanted to avoid the whole donate now, tip jar thing. I didn’t want to beg anyone for money. If people want to watch it, they can pay and watch it. If they don’t want to watch it, they don’t have to do anything. It took a lot longer than I initially thought. I’m really happy with the results.
AH: There’s going to be some new material, right?
REK: It’s essentially all-new material. There’s a two-minute opening where I say that this is all new and unrecorded material. That’s not entirely true. A couple of the songs are two or three years old, but not on anything at all. Then there’s one song that I recorded on a secret album. It was a joke that didn’t really work called The Stryker Brothers that I did with Randy Rogers, another Texas artist. I borrowed one of the songs from there because, I don’t know, five people own that Stryker Brothers record.
AH: Are you writing as much as you normally do since COVID hit?
REK: It’s pretty much the same. I’m working on things that are thematic with the band just like with Western Chill. The next thing we’re going to shoot is called Late Night, Last Minute. Let your imagination run wild. It’s whatever you think it could be.
AH: What’s it like for you not being on the road?
REK: I’ve been rejuvenated. I’ve been on the road for 30 years, playing 120 dates a year, and that doesn’t include travel. Really I’m on the road 180 days a year. Some of it became repetitive. I was having a hard time getting up for the whole thing. I was just kind of wearing out. I’m enjoying making music. I’m enjoying finding a new avenue for creativity. I enjoy building the sets I made out here as much as I enjoy the music. We built these sets and we worked through it visually as well as musically. It’s been a boost for me.
AH: It seems like other artists are itching to get back on the road.
REK: The thing is, we’ve played a handful of shows. We’ve heavily vetted and pitched shows to make sure the band and I are safe. The shows themselves are so strange and so far away from what I’m used to. Even some of the oddest shows I’ve had in the past are nowhere near as odd as these shows. I went to Texas A&M. They have something called The 12th Man, which is based on a myth about a guy who came out of the stands in 1910 because all the football players were hurt. They needed an extra guy, so one of the guys from the stands came out and jumped in. They have this whole 12th Man myth. I think of the audience being the 12th man. The 12th man here is limited and somewhat muted just because of the social distancing. Believe me, I’m all for it. I’m safety-first about all of this. The logistics of it and the way people are set up. It doesn’t have that people power. Say if you go on the road. I used to run a lot. I never did a marathon, but I did some half marathons and 10Ks and things like that. You get in with groups of people and you can see the energy. That’s what you get at great shows with people packed in there. It’s beyond yourself. It’s beyond the band. It’s even beyond the room. It takes on a life of its own.
AH: I spoke to an artist who’s been doing backyard shows where they measure the yard for social distancing. It must be pretty weird to show up to a show where the maximum is 25.
REK: Right. It’s strange. The best one I did – and I don’t do this much – I did a solo show in Santa Fe with Eliza Gilkyson. It was one of those drive-in shows at a polo field. For whatever reason, that was one of the great shows back in late August or early September. That’s the one that was closest to the good old days of playing. People were excited. It was fun, and you could feel the energy. I’m looking forward to all of this calming down and getting back to playing regular shows.
AH: When did you know that singer/songwriter was the correct career path for you?
REK: I was always moving that way. I graduated. I moved to Austin. I got a job for the state. At 5:30, I’d be down at some hot dog stand or taco place playing for tips down there. I just kept working it. At the same time, writing songs and being involved in a few things. At the Kerrville Folk Festival, I won the New Folk Songwriter thing one year. Thirty or 50 people would compete. I was involved in things like that. I started playing and putting things together in 1981.
AH: You worked on an oil rig at one point?
REK: I worked all the way through college as a roughneck. As soon as I got out of high school, I went to east Texas and got a job on a rig. I went even further south, just wherever the work was. As a kid, it was incredible. Some of my first jobs were seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That was 44 hours of overtime every week, so it was a pretty damn big paycheck for somebody who was 18 years old.
AH: You’re involved in a variety of charities. Why is the Hill Country Youth Orchestra so important to you?
REK: It’s the only program like it in the whole United States. They reach out to anyone. There’s no fee. It’s totally free, so it’s not exclusive. It doesn’t cost the kid or the parent anything. All they have to do is go up there and show that they want to play. They start at six years old and go all the way through high school. It’s a really great program. They start out playing “Twinkle, Twinkle”, and get more complex. By the time they’re in high school, some of those kids are amazing players. They’ve had some really great talent there. They had a few go on to Harvard. One went to Juilliard. The program is pretty much funded by other people around the hill country. I saw a space where I could play a show and give them all the money. We also do a big auction. We’ve done as little as $50,000 and as much as $95,000 on one date in a year, and that money goes to them. I’ll do it again in February. This will be the 14th year.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
REK: Man, that’s a really good question. I’d be doing something outdoors. I like being outdoors. It occurred to me a few years back that I have written 80% of my songs outside. It could have been in a backyard, or by a campfire or something. I just want to be outdoors. I don’t know, park ranger, archeologist.
Western Chill will air on nugs.tv at 8 Central on November 21. For more details, visit https://nugs.tv/live-webcasts/5,484/Robert-Earl-Keen-11-2020-Western-Chill-Snake-Barn-Movie-Ranch-Studios-Texas.html