Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen will open the Grand Theatre’s 2012-13 performance season with a concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11.
It has been an eventful year for the critically-acclaimed singer and guitarist. In March, he was one of three inductees into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame, a ceremony held annually in Austin.
In a recent telephone interview, Keen admitted that he didn’t know just how big an honor he was about to receive.
“I thought I’d just drive by and pick (the award) up,” Keen said with a chuckle. It dawned on him that he was in tall cotton when he got to the venue, the Moody Theater, the home of Austin City Limits.
“It turned out to be in this really state-of-the-art facility, and it was sold out. It was THE VIP event for Austin.” Keen said.
The hall of fame features a Who’s Who of great songwriters associated with Texas, including the likes of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Delbert McClinton. This year’s ceremony was especially meaningful for Keen because of the two other inductees – Lyle Lovett, a college buddy from the late 1970s at Texas A&M University, and the late Townes Van Zandt, whose work was an inspiration to countless artists.
Beyond the induction ceremony, Keen has been busy crisscrossing the country on tour with his four-piece band.
“We typically do a hundred to 120 shows a year,” Keen said.
It’s a pace that he has kept up for most of his career.
“At the end of the day, (touring) is what I do best,” Keen said. “I’ve put a lot of effort into having a good band, and that we’re on time (at a venue), and that we entertain people.”
In a business known for turnover, Keen’s band consists of veterans, each of them having collaborated with him for at least 15 years. They consist of Rich Brotherton, guitar; Bill Whitbeck, bass guitar; Tom Van Schaik, drums; and Marty Muse, steel guitar.
With a rich store of songs to draw from dating back to the late 1970s, Keen mixes up his concerts.
“We play about half of the show with stuff that’s very predictable,” he said. “The rest of if it, we change it up. We’ll go to the venue, do a sound check, play a few songs, and kinda feel it out. If it’s a theater setting, we might do some quiet stuff; if it’s a honky-tonk, we’ll pull out the honky-tonk (music).”
Keen’s songs are known for their accessible melodies and precisely written and keenly observational lyrics. He draws on a wide range of musical genres, from folk and blues to country and Western swing.
His first thought in writing a song is always what he wants to say lyrically, as might be expected from an English major.
“At this point, I’ve become a fan of really great journalism,” Keen said. “I think it hones the craft so much sharper. I like really great writing.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Keen rarely writes songs on the fly. In fact, he maintains a modest house in the country outside his hometown of Kerrville, Texas, as a songwriting retreat. He calls it the Scriptorium.
“I just sit out there with a paper and pencil, my guitars and my books, and write lyrics and strum my guitar,” Keen said.
Away from cell phones, televisions, or other electronic distractions, he will spend a week or 10 days at a time at the Scriptorium working on ideas that might have occurred to him over the intervening months.
“It’s a true kind of writing destination,” Keen said. Song ideas “unconsciously float to the top” as he strums his little 1935 Washburn parlor guitar. At the end of a week or so, he typically has enough songs to fill an album.
Keen has been productive in the studio over the years. He has 16 albums to his credit. His latest is “Ready for Confetti,” on the Lost Highway label. The up-tempo “I Gotta Go” from the album has been released as a single.
ABOUT TICKETS: Tickets are $25, $35 and $45 and may be purchased at the door, online at the Grand Theatre Web site, http://www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org, or by visiting the ticket office, 312 W. Main St., weekdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The phone number is 352-7469. At press time, a very limited number of tickets remained available in all price ranges; please call to see about any returned tickets.