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Robert Earl Keen: Growing creatively, loving life and 'Ready for Confetti'

John T. Davis

Singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen releases his 15th album, "Ready for Confetti," on Tuesday and celebrates with a CD release show on Thursday at Antone's. Last Thursday, Keen took a little time off from celebrating his wife Kathleen's birthday to talk about the album, the songs and life its ownself. We spoke to him by phone from his office in Kerrville.

American-Statesman: Your wife is turning 50 today. How did you feel about passing that milestone (Keen is 55)?

Robert Earl Keen: I loved 50! I felt like that was the time you could really let it all hang out. You could tell everybody you didn't like to kiss their (butt), and tell everybody you loved to kiss you right there on the mouth. (Laughs.) That lasted for about six months, then I went back into my shell again.

Your new album starts out with a cowboy song, "Black Baldy Stallion," and you've recorded a cowboy song on almost all of your albums. What about the form appeals to you?

It's an opportunity to be real cinematic as a writer. That's my favorite sort of song to sing or even listen to - things that have a lot of setting. There's always a lot of color in the setting and then you have a story line meandering through it. And the Western is classic. It always pares itself down to the great themes - man vs. nature, man vs. man. I don't know, it always works for me. It's right down the middle of my comfort zone.

Did you get outside of your comfort zone on this album?

Definitely. My comfort zone deals with mid-tempo melodies and not a lot of musical spaces. But, for instance, the title cut, "Ready for Confetti," goes (through many chord changes). Before, I'd never left a lot of musical space, but on this one, there's lots of musical space.

"Ready for Confetti" almost sounds like a kid's song.

I wouldn't say it's not a kid's song. It's fun, it's straightforward and I had fun singing it. But I don't know if kids really like it, because my kids went, (deadpan voice) "Uh-huh, great, dad."

You even put a reggae melody ("Waves On the Ocean") on the album. That's not a form many listeners would associate with you.

Number one, I love reggae. What I always fall back on, in terms of what I like to listen to, are the real rudimentary musical forms. Old traditional country and blues music, bluegrass and reggae. I never tire of them. Even if it's new artists in bluegrass or reggae. I just love the form. It sounds good to me, and I'm real comfortable with it.

The traditional gospel tune "Soul of a Man" closes the album. What made you choose that way to conclude the record?

I always liked the song, and in a real good theater setting, we will unplug and step to the front of the stage and play either Billy Joe Shaver's song "Live Forever" or "Soul of A Man." "Live Forever" 's been done a jillion times, and I don't think "Soul of A Man" has been recorded as much. … We use it where it works, like at the Paramount. We definitely wouldn't do it in a honky-tonk in Corpus!

"The Road Goes On and On" is a cathartic, unalloyed slam at Toby Keith. What's your bone to pick with him?

It's been some stuff that has happened over the years, but the last thing was that single off his last record ("Bullets in the Gun"). I never pay any attention, but my phone exploded with e-mails and texts about the song; People were saying, how come he took your song and why didn't he come up with his own song?

Melodically, it's not dead on top of it, but cadence-wise and story-wise, it's taken out of (Keen's song) "The Road Goes On Forever."

I had a choice to hit back with some kind of lawsuit. But my mother was a lawyer, and I watched people waste their lives in lawsuits. God bless all the lawyers in the world, but I think lawsuits are a waste of life.

So, since I wasn't about to sue him, so I thought I'd answer in kind. I just wanted to say, stop with the nonsense. So I wrote him a song. It's no different than Kitty Wells or Hank Thompson singing "(It Wasn't God Who Made) Honky-Tonk Angels" or classic literary characters like Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift answering people. You answer them in the way you know how to best answer. There's a precedent in literature and music for doing that, so that's what I did.

How has your process changed since you recorded your first album in 1984?

When you turn 50, you don't have to prove anything anymore. I spent a lot of time (earlier in my career) trying to be ultra-clever or trying to hide little inside jokes or messages to people in my songs. Then one day it wasn't working for me anymore, as far as being creative. So this record, for the most part, I let well enough alone. When these songs came out, I didn't try to edit them, I just let them happen. I definitely did not want to overthink it.

You re-recorded "Paint the Town Beige," which you originally cut in 1993. What made you choose to re-visit that song?

Over the years, that's the one song that anybody who gets more than two minutes with me and wants to say something nice about my music will say is their favorite.

I've always been proud of that lyric. It's not a song I'm really well-known for, and it's not a song I play very often. It's quiet, and it really requires an audience being quiet to hear it. I don't try to repeat myself over and over, but I thought, there's a bunch of people that never had that record ("Bigger Piece of Sky") and never heard that song, so I thought it would be worth re-recording so some younger fans could hear it.

You originally pitched it to Jerry Jeff Walker. Has it become more of a first-person song over time?

Definitely. And that's an interesting note about writing, period. At the time, it was a kind of projection of where I might be someday, but now I have flat grown into that song. I really have grown into that guy.

Are you happy being that guy?

Yeah, I'm real happy.

What else are you happy about these days?

I think I've definitely been able to balance having a rigorous and risky career with a family, and it's all been intact. That's sort of rare in the entertainment business to be able to balance both of those. The other thing is, I feel I've been able to grow, creatively. I started out with some innate talent for writing, and over the years I've learned a lot of things. It's not just been, I throw some (stuff) out there at the front end, and it's going to be the same all these years later. I feel like I've grown tremendously in terms of creativity.

For my money, I'm like a Texas Hold 'Em game. I'm all in on this being the best record I ever made. There's that whole magic recipe of Lloyd (producer Lloyd Maines) and this band I've been together with for so long. ... Anybody that's creative has to have some kind of team around them. When we did (the previous album) "The Rose Hotel," I thought, we've really got the team. We really enjoyed the whole record-making process.

Robert Earl Keen

When: 8 p.m.

Thursday

Where: Antone's, 213 W. Fifth St.

Cost: Get a laminate for entry by being one of the first 500 people to buy a copy of the new record, `Ready for Confetti' at Waterloo Records.

Information: antones.net

• Keen also plays Tuesday at Texas Music Theater, 120 E. San Antonio in San Marcos. $25. www.tmtsm.com .