On his newest album, "What I Really Mean," the title song gives a nod to traveling through snowy Richmond, and on another, Keen spins a tall tale about Hank Williams in drag. "Mr. Wolf and Mamabear" ties together a famous wolverine, Sheriff Hog, Miss Peacock, some opium, a midnight getaway and a murder in a hotel room. Keen and his band strut and flutter through the tunes so lightly it seems that he might be writing bedtime stories.
Keen is quick to correct: "Bedtime stories with teeth," he says. And that's kind of at the heart of what he does, what he's been doing since he produced his first album, "No Kinda Dancer," in Austin in 1984. Or it could have been even earlier, when he and college buddy Lyle Lovett sat on Keen's porch at Texas A&M coming up with a style of tune with teeth that would influence Texas country, Americana and the development of alt-country. Eleven albums later, Keen has a host of songs that, whether sung in Houston, San Francisco or Charlottesville, inevitably encourage the audience to sing along, drinks upraised.
Songs that are obvious crowd-pleasers, "The Road Goes on Forever," "Five Pound Bass," "Corpus Christi Bay" and the holiday favorite "Merry Christmas From the Family" (which became a book), Keen insists, are just the luck of the draw. "I don't feel like I have complete control over the creative process," he says. In the breezy manner that makes him right at home playing beer halls and festivals, Keen explains that his songs come from his life and are then embellished or twisted for contrast or simply to make fun. What comes out is music from a nearby, though alternate, universe: truly alt-country. "Whether it really connects with the true meaning of what I've seen, I don't know," he admits.
Speaking of control, Keen sees two sides to it in music. "I'm the leader of the band," he says, by way of explaining how he maintains harmony on the road or in the studio. "They can have problems, and they can come to me," he says. "Totally democratic bands are tough to make work.
People are vying for positions." And the breezy perspective, again: "I've been kicked out of bands before."
He's more serious when talking about his relationship with his audience. "In life and in songs, I'm not big on manipulation." Which is why he says he doesn't write for an audience, doesn't try to write those beer-hoisters. "We're all individuals and we're all here individually having a good time."
And then he drops a bomb on the "Freebird" paradigm: "The more they scream a song, the less likely I am to play it." A little harsh? "Hey, I'm not a monkey. I'm not Pavlov's chicken, you know." Which sounds like the start of a good toast. Or a good bedtime story. S Robert Earl Keen plays Groovin' in the Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on June 9 with Special Ed & The Shortbus Bluegrass Band. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.; music starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $18-$20 and are available at http://richmondconcerts.net.
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