Robert Earl Keen’s style spans bluegrass, folk, country and rock, but it’s his recognizably laidback drawl that makes his sound so cohesive. The Texas singer-songwriter has released 18 full-length albums for both independent and major record labels, and his songs have been recorded by artists including George Strait, Dixie Chicks and Lyle Lovett. Keen is on tour with Lovett (a longtime friend and collaborator), and we spoke with him in advance of his Missoula show.
What are you looking forward to most about coming to Montana?
Robert Earl Keen: If we were going to Billings I’d say, I don’t know, stopping at Perkins and getting breakfast? But, Missoula—if it were better weather I’d be down there at the university playing golf at that little golf course over there, which I really like. And then I like the whole downtown area and of course the river’s just fantastic. Every time I go to Missoula I think, “I’m going to get an apartment here.” And then the Wilma’s turned into a great venue and I really enjoy it. So there’s lots and lots I can say about Missoula. I like some other places in Montana, but I really truly think Missoula’s just a great place anywhere in the United States.
What songs have you been playing recently? What should we expect from the show?
REK: This show is really unscripted. Lyle and I have been friends since 1978. We sit in the bus waiting for the show and somebody says, “It’s showtime!” and we get on stage and say hi everybody and start talking about whatever we were talking about on the bus. So it’s different every show. I always play some songs that people who know who I am would recognize, like “Comin’ Home” and “Feelin’ Good Again” and “The Road Goes on Forever.” And Lyle and I play off of each other. We’ve known each other so long it’s like a fun ping-pong game with songs.
Do you still play folk, bluegrass and country, or are you moving in a particular direction these days?
REK: I don’t know. I have to explain to people that are a lot younger than I am that I never really paid attention to what I was playing. I mean, I’m not trying to be evasive or anything, but I never really cared about what other people were playing, I never tried to sound like other people. It never did bother me if people thought I sucked. I just went ahead and played. In general, I play songs that I write and I have a certain perspective, so without sounding too uppity about it, I just play Robert Earl Keen songs. And I’m not just making that term up. People actually say, “Hey man, I just wrote a Robert Earl Keen song, check this out … I don’t know what that means, but I do have people tell me that.
Who do you think is the most underrated country musician right now?
REK: The most underrated person I know is a kid named Adam Carroll. He’s not a kid, but he’s younger than I am. He’s amazing and hardly anybody knows him. As a matter of fact, I used to have him open up for me exclusively. He’s like me in that he’s regional and somewhat Texas-centric, but he has this magical way of getting his personality into the song. He’s almost like the perfect observer, like in a great novel where the narrative voice has this insight into what’s going on at the time. He really has a great bird’s-eye view. He also makes very sparse records, with maybe just a bass and guitar. And he plays the harmonica. He’s a great harmonica player and he does get attention for that sometimes.
When you’re not on the road, who do you like getting together to play with?
REK: You know, I don’t do that enough! I really love music, but I think maybe that time of my life is gone. I’m so involved with doing the next tour, and I really spend a lot of time with my family — I try to give 100 percent of me when I’m at home. My daughter plays the violin and we sit around and play a little bit, but it’s not the kind of jamming like I used to do with my friends. I don’t think there’s anything better in music than sitting around with your friends and playing some old Grateful Dead song. You get this feeling that you never have just in conversation or watching a movie or even working on a common project. Playing music together is something that unites us like nothing else.
You’ve toured a lot of places and played a lot of venues, but is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’re hoping to get to?
REK: That’s a good question. People don’t usually ask that. I’m friends with [singer-songwriter] Todd Snider, who has these funny stories about playing Alaska, and I’ve never played there and always wanted to. I also would like to spend some time in one of those bluegrassy places like North Carolina or eastern Tennessee and be in one of those deals where you hang out for a while and play. Knoxville has a really healthy bluegrass scene, and so does Bristol.
What are you working on right now?
REK: I’m working on everything all at one time. I have no idea how it’s going to play out. Musically, I’ve just been writing songs, and I’ll probably try to put out a record this year. I feel like I’m way, way overdue, and so that’s just standard operating procedure for me, trying to write some songs. I don’t have a certain project that’s legitimate at the moment.
Anything else you want to say?
REK: I do think this thing I do with Lyle is really magical. A lot of time you have old friends you didn’t really play music with, or you have people you played music with but you weren’t really friends. This has both. And he’s a better guitar player than me, but not a ton better, so we play pretty well together. And we certainly enjoy playing together. So I’d say in the world of live music out there, this is—I don’t know, I feel like I’m bragging to say that it’s really special, but it is. I’m looking forward to it.
Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett play the Wilma Mon., Jan. 29, at 8 PM. Sold out.