Robert earl keen a career in four songs – houston chronicle

“Most of the time we’d sit there and look at turtles and (expletive),” he says. “This one time we smoked some pot. And then this guy showed up with these three trashy girls. They’re all older than we are. And the guy says, ‘Man, I’m gonna steal a car. You guys wanna go?’ Me and my friend, we weren’t interested. So we watched from the bayou as he went door to door until he found keys to a car. They huffed some gas. The girls jumped in with him. Boom. They hauled ass and hit a telephone pole.

Before Keen reached College Station, he’d gotten a violin, then decided he didn’t want to play the violin. He instead snared his sister’s Alvarez guitar. He says he was still green as a writer, but “The Front Porch Song” suggests a sharp writer’s eye for detail: “This old porch is just a steaming, greasy plate of enchiladas/With lots of cheese and onions and a guacamole salad/You can get ’em at the La Salle Hotel in old downtown/With iced tea and a waitress who will smile every time.”

“I think after all these years, it’s just that I’m a visual writer. I can’t put together sounds like guys at Motown or Stax. But I can make a scene happen. That’s what happens in my brain. And it’s funny because years later when I sing these songs, I still see the exact same pictures as when I wrote them.”

Another song from “Picnic,” this one is Keen’s origin story in a way. “Then Came Lo Mein” references a nervous breakdown, which is fascinating in and of itself. Country (and country-ish) songwriters don’t often relate such moments of vulnerability so openly. But Keen recounts a visit to the “all-you-can-eat Chinese place,” where 30 years ago he and his wife Kathleen decided to cut bait and go back to Texas.

Keen says the song is “a little more journalistic than I like to get with my life,” but the clarity of perspective lends the song weight. The juxtaposition of Chinese food in Nashville in the ’80s was by design. “There’s a little bit of Cheever in there, where he takes a real situation and makes it surreal.”

Keen’s songs were unapologetically regional in their imagery, but they played like well-written fiction where setting is crucial. They played well in Texas, but they could be admired by any listener attuned to good storytelling. His “Whenever Kindness Fails” felt like a Jim Thompson novel compressed to three minutes. Keen’s Scriptorium is decorated with a poster from the film “There Will Be Blood,” and books by John Cheever and other authors he admires. His dog, Mac, is named for Cormac McCarthy.

“I met some great songwriters, but I could see that same umbrella of doom that put me in the place I was in that song,” he says. “And it’s worse now, because if you don’t write a hit single and then another nobody gives a (expletive). Nobody seemed to be having any fun. You have to ask yourself why you’re doing it.”

Since he released “No Kinda Dancer” 34 years ago, Keen has identified as a songwriter. So he sounds a little frustrated that the logistics of running a business have crimped the creative side of his enterprise. His band is salaried with insurance and retirement funds. Since the music industry imploded, Keen’s company relies more than ever on performing music live.