A “Real Cowboy” Reaps His Reward

by Robert Moseley

After three decades of plying his trade in recording studios and concert venues across the U.S.,  Robert Earl Keen appears to be in his comfort zone. His latest album, Happy Prisoner, has earned rave reviews and raised demand for appearances on the road. He’s received the place on Nashville’s “Writers Row” that was denied him on his first foray into Music City. And he’s a bona fide businessman, peddling everything from tee-shirts and koozies on his website to Robert Earl Keen Beer in H-E-B stores.

One warm Monday morning not long ago, Keen popped the top on a can of Red Bull and — clean-shaven with solidly gray hair and dressed in blue from his collar to his shoes — sat down at a table in his Kerrville office to talk about everything from his writing style to his dust-up with Toby Keith to the ubiquitousness of the Texas A&M Aggie. And how, though not in so many words, the years of hard work he’s done as a “real cowboy” in music are paying tremendous dividends.

Keen on words

Keen graduated with a degree in English at College Station, and his love of literature and writing shows in his lyrics. He sometimes writes serious lyrics with blues-flavored tales of lost love and ne’er-do-wells. He writes about horses and cars and trains and many, many towns. In recent years, he’s written, with a sort of resigned humor, about growing older (“Paint the Town Beige” and “Wireless in Heaven” stand out). And his humorous songs like “The Little Things” are often highlights of his albums and sing-along favorites at his live shows.

In “Wireless in Heaven,” on the album The Rose Hotel, Keen sings that his wife has left him and he finds himself in a Starbucks ordering one of its over-priced, over-the-top drinks when “the pretty little cashier girl looks up and smiles at me; she says ‘It’s an honor,’ she knows who I am. Her grandpa plays the guitar, and he’s my biggest fan.” What inspired that lyric? “That happened to me almost verbatim.”

Keen finds inspiration in the strangest places. On the same album, he and his band perform “Village Inn,” a song he remembers writing at 2 o’clock in the morning in the actual Village Inn Motel in Idaho. “It’s like a really weird commercial for a motel,” he said of the lyrics, but it serves as a constant reminder of the Braun Brothers Festival that brought him to Challis, Idaho. “Writing a song is like taking a picture of a special place in time,” Keen said. “It solidifies that memory.”

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