ROBERT EARL KEEN: It’s kind of like a homecoming. I lived here for about 4 years and had some regular jobs and that kind of thing and played some music in lots and lots of bars so I have a lot of friends here. I haven’t really lived here for about 20 years or so and when I come back here and do something like this, especially because some of these musicians I grew up with and some of these guys that are promoting other shows I’ve known for a long time it feels like a big old family reunion.
AD: What do you think of the weather this year?
REK: Compared to the dust storms of two years ago, it’s been good. Actually, Texas this year has been a great summer. If you didn’t like rain it would be too bad but I like rain and I like cool weather so I thought it was like living in the North West without having to leave the state.
AD: People keep talking about how much ACL has changed. How do you feel about that?
REK: That’s nonsense. You’re either on the bus or off the bus. I’m glad it changes. I give those guys that put this on a lot of respect for being able to move and groove with what is going on because that is what music is about. It’s always changing. It’s extremely fluid and volatile—so I think it’s great.
AD: you have been very influential as a songwriter and many people have covered your songs. Tell us a little bit about how that works.
REK: From A to B or A to Z? The short version: it’s something I’ve always had. I was always good with rhyming verse–I did it from early on. When I was 6 or 7 I used to write poems and stuff; pretty simple poems. Even at times I would use words and phrases that I didn’t really know what they meant. They would just come out because they had a certain rhythm and context within the thing that I was writing miraculously they would work—they would make sense. I always had that. As far musically, I just learned how to play the guitar when I was in college.
AD: Was it language before music?
REK: As far as the songwriting process, it’s the music that is the engine that makes the ideas sort of come and then once I get going with that and strumming along and get a tune going then the words just kind of fall out. I mean it doesn’t always happen that way, it’s not always that easy, but that’s really what happens. The music is a real catalyst to making the words work out real well. I know lots of really famous songwriters, Bob Dylan for example, writes stuff on a pad and then goes back and then comes up with a tune. Somehow I really need the music to get going. I’m not a journalist, so I don’t think of some story to tell. The music creates a mood and then I just start putting words to it.
AD: Austin has changed so much since you have started out. What do you think of the changes in Austin? What do you think of the music scene here?
REK: One of the more personal things and it doesn’t really make any difference in the world of the music scene I guess, but when I was here 6th Street was really a cool place for music. There were funky, funky blues bars and folk bars and it wasn’t just some kind of Mardi Gras all the time. There was a lot of music and it was very cool. I haven’t been down there in 15 years or so. I never go down there anymore. But Austin’s always been really lively–it’s just a fertile ground for live music. There has been changes but for the most part, and personally, I just come to central Austin: Zilker Park, South Austin down to Oltorf and north, not past 45th Street, those are my boundaries. I purposely walk around with blinders on.
AD: What wisdom would you offer someone just starting out in the business?
REK: I’ll give you the answer and I didn’t come up with this. Muzzy Braun, the father of Micky and Cody and Willy of Reckless Kelly and the Motor Cars, played music forever–he’s about my age–and I met him a long time ago. He told me something. Here’s the advice: always play the melody never sell your publishing. That’s all you got to know. You stick with that you can’t go wrong.
AD: Did you learn that one the hard way?
REK: You know if I was really a good musician I would always play the melody. But I don’t. I always appreciate it when someone steps up and is just dead on with the melody. That publishing thing, as soon as you make something everyone is out there to pick you apart. Like buzzers on a dead animal.
AD: What’s next for you?
REK: Keep going down the road till the tires fall off. Really, that’s all I can do. Make some records every now and then. For lack of a better term, I really think of myself and my band as a touring band and we tour all the time and then we make a record somewhere in that. But it’s not the other way around. We’re always making music and always playing. We are just out there all the time and then we make records occasionally. That’s what we do. That’s really our job.
AD: And you still like being out there?
REK: I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t. There are a lot of things I could be doing. There are a lot of things that I’m not good at that I wouldn’t mind doing either. This is where it is at for me.
AD: Anything else?
REK: If you want to have a good time come to Austin. Musically, it’s as fertile and creative as any place I ever go.
AD: Any new recordings?
REK: I’ve got a best of out there. The part that I would be proud of is that I picked the songs they are in somewhat chronological order. If you want the Robert Earle Keen starter kit, pick up this record.