Somewhere in the course of our phone conversation, I ask Robert Earl Keen how he planned to use his degree in English literature after he graduated from Texas A&M in 1980.
Keen doesn’t miss a beat.
“Oh my God,” he says, “I’m the one person in America that uses their English degree for exactly what it’s applied to.”
The Texan singer-songwriter has released nearly 20 albums in the course of a 30-year career that really took flight just a few years after he received that English degree. Through the decades he became one of the Lone Star State’s most beloved musicians, with big names like George Strait, Lyle Lovett and the Dixie Chicks covering his work.
If you’re familiar with Keen’s music, you might call him somewhat of an acquired taste — Lord knows he’s called himself that. But you can’t offend Keen by telling him his power as a performer doesn’t lie in the virtuosity of his guitar playing or the strength of his voice, because he knows damn well he’s not a maestro on guitar or the Pavarotti of Americana.
Nah, Keen’s strength lies in his capacity as a storyteller. And that’s just fine with him.
“Most of my English degree came about through literature, not so much writing but the study of literature from novels to poems to free-form writing,” Keen says. “So I read and wrote on a lot of different subjects as far as literature goes, and I feel like I’m part of that fabric now. I’m the original English major. Everyone else went and became a lawyer… or started a bed and breakfast.”
Keen’s an amiable guy, so while law doesn’t quite seem to suit him, maybe he still could be a hell of a B&B owner if he knows how to whip up a decent batch of waffles, but we didn’t really get into that. Keen never doubted he’d spend his life making music for a living, even when he was working a 9-to-5 with the Texas Railway Commission right out of college. He’d clock out as soon as he could and make his way down to some bar or open mic most every night for four years, slowly creating a collection of original material that he laid down into his first album in 1984, No Kinda Dancer.
“The two things that I did know was that I wasn’t gonna give up and the other thing was when I started being around other people involved in music, I knew I was gonna be there when they weren’t.”
And 30 years later here he is. He’s done it all, whatever he’s wanted, really, from country to folk to rock (and a heavy dose of comedy mixed into all of that). His songs are purely and unapologetically Texas, from tender ballads about life as an immigrant to hand-clapping ditties perfect for poker playing and whiskey drinking. The more you sit and let Keen spin you a yarn, the more you want to hear, and the more endearing his wobbly baritone becomes. You scarcely need whiskey to feel well-oiled from Keen’s tales of road trippin’, heart breakin’ and Texas hill country livin’.
Despite Keen’s unrestricted musical exploration, bluegrass remained conspicuously missing from the singer’s hefty catalog — until last year.
Keen’s loved bluegrass since he was a teenager tearing up the streets of Houston with eight-tracks of The Stanley Brothers, but he’s been vocal — no pun intended — about feeling like he lacks the prowess to attack a genre that’s known for those “high, lonesome” tenor voices.
“I really thought it just wasn’t my place in music,” he says. “I was happy playing it around campfire situations or hanging out late night and swapping songs.”
But time has this way of shifting our notions of where exactly our “place” in life, or music, is. For Keen, the time had finally come to do what he’d always wanted to do and sing some bluegrass.
The result is Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, a collection of 15 bluegrass classics (20 if you get the deluxe version of the album) that Keen put together with a little help from his friends Lyle Lovett, Natalie Maines, fiddler Sara Watkins, mandolin player Kym Warner, banjo picker Danny Barnes and others.
The album’s title, Keen says, is a reflection of the dichotomy that exists in bluegrass between the toe-tapping melodies and heart-rending lyrics.
Keen’s called the album one of the happiest experiences he’s had while making music, and it earned him Billboard’s 2015 No. 2 Bluegrass Artist and No. 2 Bluegrass Album.
With the bluegrass album done, Keen says he’s ready to take on his next challenge.
“Short songs for a short attention span culture,” he says. “You know, sometimes a song really just has one idea and it doesn’t need to keep being expressed over and over. No bridge, no chorus. Nothing longer than 45 seconds.”