October 22, 2009

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Stories and songs
Robert Earl Keen brings Texas to Londonderry
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

The “guitar pull” — a few musicians sitting in a circle trading tunes — wasn’t invented in Texas. But guys like Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen helped make it an art form. This Sunday, Oct. 25, New Hampshire music fans will get a rare glimpse of this tradition as Keen, Todd Snider and Bruce Robison visit Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry to swap songs and stories.

It’s anybody’s guess what the balance between the two will be, but Keen expects a raconteur’s night out.

“One of the greatest things about seeing these kind of shows for me personally is the patter in between and the chemistry between the different artists, so I think we’ll get it rocking pretty good,” said the Texas native from Fayetteville, Ark., as he warmed up for a show after a week of hunting in eastern Montana. “Nobody’s very shy in this group, I can tell you that.”

Snider is perfect for this mix of musical chops and comic storytelling. The Nashville-by-way-of-Texas singer once famously bragged, “I’ll go on for as many as 18 minutes between the song.” The remark inspired a fan Web site called eighteenminutes.com.

Keen came up with the idea for the tour after becoming frustrated with what he describes as “a world of incredibly great songwriters that most people don’t even know … it’s almost like they don’t exist. Bruce is really, truly underexposed, and he’s a fabulous songwriter.” 

Robison is perhaps best known for the Dixie Chicks cover of his song, Travelin’ Soldier, and for penning number-one hits by George Strait (“Wrapped”) and Tim McGraw (“Angry All the Time”). But he’s stayed under the radar as a solo artist, as he and wife Kelly Willis (also a singer-songwriter) tended to family life and limited their performances to the Southwest.

That may change. “Our youngest is three, so I bet we’re gonna start moving around a little bit,” Robison said recently from him home in Austin. “Our twins are 6 years old. It’s been infants all this time, so we have not been traveling at all.” The tour with Keen and Snider is his first trip to New Hampshire.

Keen just released Rose Hotel, his first studio album since 2005. He and producer Lloyd Maines set out to make a “sonically robust” record and, says Keen, “I got as much and more than I wanted.”

The title track is a vintage tale of lost love and missed connections, while the roadhouse boogie “Throwin’ Rocks” is propelled by a sizzling gospel refrain from Deanna Fleming, a singer Keen discovered in an Austin church.

Keen has been name-checked by a few songwriters over the years — even Todd Snider mentioned him once (on “Beer Run”). He returns the favor with “The Man Behind the Drums,” a rollicking tribute to Levon Helm capped with the chorus, “Levon digs the doghouse/that’s sho’nuf rock and roll” (doghouse is Texas slang for an upright bass).

He co-wrote the track with bassist Bill Whitbeck after an appearance last year at Helm’s Ramble weekend in Woodstock, N.Y. “It was even more than you could ever hope for,” Keen said of the experience. “He called us all up on stage to sing ‘The Weight’ … they could have just stopped right there. [My band] went, this is the last waltz.”

Billy Bob Thornton contributed vocals for one of Rose Hotel’s best and grungiest tracks, after Keen met the actor through his road manager. “Every once in a while I get those requests from some star,” he says. “I almost never call, because I don’t even know what to say.”

But, says Keen, “I’ve always liked this guy, I like his stuff — so I called him up, and we talked for half an hour. The next day we started messing with this song, and I thought you know this would be right down his alley. So I called him and said would you mind singing on this song that I have called ‘10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar’?  He said, any song that’s titled like that, I’m happy to be part of.”

It’s been 20 years since Keen released the oft-covered “The Road Goes On Forever,” a milestone marked with a hardcover coffee table book this spring.  Keen is chagrined by the song’s longevity. “I had this idea, I liked it, I personally thought it was good, but I never knew it would sprout wings like it did,” he says, adding, “I thank God and everyone else for the fact that I have my own “Sweet Home Alabama,” and I don’t have to play that song.”


Hear Keen live
What: Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider, Bruce Robinson
When: Sunday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2  Young Road in Londonderry, 437-5100, www.tupelohalllondonderry.com
Tickets: $50 or $55 per person
For more on Keen: www.robertearlkeen.com

Anatomy of a song
On writing the song:
“What happened there happens to me kind of often as far as songwriting goes. Things in life, problems, all seem very complicated, so what I usually do, especially something like that which has a lot of different facets, is try to find some little way to carve off a corner of it and talk about that. It was written during the buildup to the first Gulf War, which was a good long time ago. I was working at a kitchen as a fry cook, and there was a real young guy [there] getting called up in the National Guard. He was just a kid. I was having a lot of turmoil inside of my own mind about what was going on … there were a lot of projections on how many casualties there were going to be in that mission. Which didn’t exactly turn out that way, thankfully — on our side there weren’t a ton of casualties. I couldn’t get my mind around the things that they were saying, so I wrote specifically a song about one person [going] off to war and not coming back. I just tried to make it small in that way but be able to get into that person’s life, and specifically made it not a really popular guy, but still an interesting person nonetheless. It was a real quiet way it came about, and over the years the song has gone on to be way more than I ever possibly dreamed. It’s gone places that I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote the thing. It’s taken on a life of its own, I’m really proud of it.

On the controversy when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience in 2003, just before performing “Travelin’ Soldier,” that the band opposed the invasion of Iraq and was ashamed of President Bush:
“My song was their single when that happened. It became the song that went away, but it was a hit before that happened. Number one on a lot of charts the week that Natalie [Maines, one of the Dixie Chicks] said that. It still is fascinating to think about, and probably one of the interesting things in my life. But I’ve been really lucky to have other songs do well, and other people record them. That one is definitely one of my favorites.”