That could be the title of a country music song,
but it's just the process
by which Robert Earl Keen writes country music songs

By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

November 20, 2003

For songwriter Robert Earl Keen, the best ideas come when he's alone.

"That's not to say we can't sit on the phone and put together a nursery-rhyme song," he says. "But I want to say something. I want a song to be provocative. I want people to go, 'Damn, how did that happen?'"

Over the past almost 20 years, the Houston, Texas, native has earned that response many times. The outlaw tale "The Road Goes on Forever" ("and the party never ends") has one twist after another, and the year-round favorite "Merry Christmas From the Family" makes you smile to know that your relatives are just as crazy, yet lovable, as his.

The epic, six-minute "Train Trek," on Keen's 10th and latest CD, "Farm Fresh Onions," continues that tradition and recasts the runaway train/collision course theme so common to American songwriting. Keen gives it a twist at the end with a reference to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia.

The song is a real example of the way he writes, Keen says, relaxing between sound check and show at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., last week.

"You get the whole thing rolling, adding character and a little bit of plot, and then you start creating tension," he says. "By verse seven, you have a pretty good setup for what's going to happen. Then you just have to make sure to add enough pandemonium to make it really exciting when it does crash.

"Well, it's one of the oldest themes in songwriting, from Stephen Foster's day to today, so let's go further, let's throw in the shuttle and wrap it up.

"The message is that we're always sowing the seeds of our destruction."

Keen had a co-writer for only one song on the CD, bassist Bill Whitbeck on "Let the Music Play," and Keen covers only one song, James McMurtry's "Out Here in the Middle."

Although the "Farm Fresh Onions" songwriting process was mostly solitary, the recording process was just the opposite: a collaboration by his entire road band. And Keen's ace guitar player, Rich Brotherton, produced it to capture their live sound.

At night, Keen says, "I'd go back to my little place that I rented in Austin and write all night and come back in the morning with a bunch of crumpled-up paper, and I'd say, 'Here, Rich,' and he'd say, 'Well, what am I supposed to do with that?' And I'd say, 'Well, I don't know, that's your job -- you're the producer.'

"Then we'd all sit down and start making a song out it. 'Here are your materials, make something out if.'"

It was also done without the pressure of having to please somebody else. After his previous pact with Lost Highway Records became "a complete debacle," Keen was again without a deal.

Keen knows it's "quite frankly always best to get a great relationship (with a label), like Dylan with Columbia, but I've never had that. Just extremely sour experiences."

So he decided to just make a record and worry about what to do with it later.

"I thought I'm just gonna have the band play it and do the songs the way we want to without any thought whatsoever except to make the music fit the song," he said.

The result, released in October by Audium Records, is a CD that is quite different from past efforts, especially 2001's acoustic and steel guitar-flavored "Gravitational Forces." "Farm Fresh Onions" is looser, tougher and louder than anything he's committed to CD before. Just don't call it a rock record.

"I did try to stay away from the acoustic sort of thing," Keen says. "I wanted it louder than previous records, which irks me to have to explain to some blunderclod people (who ask), 'Is that how country music is taking a new turn?' A***, I have no idea."

"Onions" contains a generous helping of classic Keen, including "Furnace Fan," about a bad night in Arizona that's eventually redeemed. But it also contains some new sounds for Keen, including the self-explanatory "So Sorry Blues" and the funky "Floppy Shoes."

And the title track is darn near psychedelic. The title came from words printed on the side of a grocery bag that his wife suggested would make a good song. The result is a collage of images "that kinda talks about spiritual belief in the onion," he says. "What I want generally is spiritual philosophy. Truth is all I'm looking for."

As far as the sound being psychedelic -- it boasts a keyboard sound reminiscent of the Strawberry Alarm Clock classic "Incense and Peppermints" -- Keen says he was just trying to have fun.

"Farm Fresh Onions" is one of several CDs released this year that were recorded without a contract, including Robert Cray's "Time Will Tell" and the Bottle Rockets' "Blue Sky." In both cases, the results were positive and liberating. Keen attributes his and their success to the freedom of feeling that the artist can do just what he wants.

When he self-released his first album, "No Kinda Dancer," in 1984, it wa s labeled a folk record, and it landed him on the Saturday morning "Folkways Show" on KUT radio, the listener-supported station of the University of Texas at Austin. But wasn't his goal.

"I wasn't making a folk record," he says. "Everything (I've done) has been sort of in the direction of making a record that is cohesive, that makes sense, that you should turn on the first cut and, through the last, feel like it sticks together."

Keen has worked through a lot of changes in the country-music business a nd somehow has managed to seem like a fresh face. After his debut album, he moved to Nashville in time for the record labels' late-'80s flirtation with experimentation. When that cooled, he returned to Austin just as the alt-country movement was gaining force.

"I'm not looking for a hit single," Keen says. "That's the problem with major labels: They're always looking for the hit single. And, frankly, it works. Unfortunately, that system works. But a lot of records I can pick up and I like this song -- and it was the hit -- and every other song sucks."

But he saves his real wrath for the repackagers and remixers, who lure fans into paying again -- and in some cases again -- for the music they already own.

"They repackaged that (expletive) Darryl Worley album, putting that (expletive) pro-war song on there and made a million," he says of "Have You Forgotten," which adds tracks from two previous albums to two new songs.

"I'm the anti-repackaged-crapola-music guy."

He's also the fun guy, as his rowdy, sing-along audiences know well.

"The whole idea is to make music that's fun," he says. "I've made serious music and, frankly, I think I can write better than 98 percent of the singer-songwriters out there. Let's be fair: I'm a crappy singer, but I write a great lyric."