"I would love to have been one of the great singers in the world -- like Vince Gill or someone like that -- even if it was just for one hour," says Robert Earl Keen. "But I really feel like my gift is writing songs. That's just there and it's always been there. I don't know why, but I always have stories -- they don't all have to be true, just good. If I could put a subtitle on my best songs, it would be 'based on a good story.'"
With his latest Lost Highway album, The Rose Hotel (which hit #1 on the Americana charts), Keen re-confirms his place among the Lone Star State's great storytellers, capable of painting rich, poignant landscapes worthy of Cormac McCarthy and spinning satirical yarns that'd do Kinky Friedman proud. The disc's rough-hewn tone -- it's one of the more immediate, organic efforts in Keen's varied catalog -- emphasizes both ends of that emotional spectrum, with Band-styled organ washes dappling the evocative title track and a hoedown-worthy breakdown propelling the wry "Wireless in Heaven" to its conclusion.
"I've done rustic records, polished records and live records," says Keen. " And this time, I wanted to do one that sounded rich and robust. I wanted it to sound big. I wanted it to have a lot of voices. I think it sounds great. The feedback from everybody has been outstanding."
Keen and producer Lloyd Maines (known for his work with his daughter's little combo, The Dixie Chicks, and many many others) got a lot of voices onto The Rose Hotel in both figurative and literal senses. The album is loaded with tunes designed to get toes to tap and hips to swivel, and peppered with guest appearances sure to pique interest -- from the unmistakable deadpan tones that Billy Bob Thornton adds to the shaggy-dog saga "10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar" to the rough-and-ready baritone of Greg Brown, who swaps verses with Keen on his own "Laughing River."
"I've always been a huge fan of Greg's and I knew that he was in town when we were recording, so I called up the club where he was playing and asked him if he'd be on the album," recalls Keen. "I promised him I'd make it easy as possible. My whole family came down for the session."
A familial vibe extends throughout The Rose Hotel, as is usually the case when Robert Earl Keen enters the studio with his band, a tight-knit group that's navigated the globe together for the better part of a decade-and-a-half. Keen prides himself on the fact that the albums he and his compatriots turn out are almost completely self-contained and 100 percent free from artificial colors and flavors.
"These songs are real," he says. "They're hand-made. When people come to see us live, they're seeing the people who created them play them and that's not all that common these days. It's the kind of magic that doesn't happen all the time."
Well, Keen and his band have been making that kind of magic happen for quite a spell, ever since the singer started putting his writing -- a pastime that had been part of his life since before he started elementary school -- to music while a student at Texas A & M University. Keen dipped deep into the waters of his native state's musical tradition early on, digging out nuggets from such touchstones as Bob Wills and Lightnin' Hopkins.
By the time he recorded his first full-length studio album, 1989's West Textures, Keen had already established himself as one of the most engaging live performers on the roadhouse circuit, capable of coaxing a two-step out of the most reticent audience member and planting a tear in the beer of the toughest customer. That persuasive style -- captured on four different live albums over the course of his two decades on the road -- also helped him win friends and influence contemporaries like Jack Ingram, Pat Green and Todd Snider, all of whom have sung his praises.
Keen has had no trouble translating that appeal in the studio over the years, from 1994's highly acclaimed Gringo Honeymoon to the top 10 breakthrough disc Gravitational Forces -- the latter of which showcased the sheer breadth of his stylistic reach. He and his band always find a way to connect with the pleasure center of the listener, and -- as the genial, good-natured tone of the songs on The Rose Hotel prove -- they manage to have a mighty good time of their own in the process.
"I wrote most of the songs at the Scriptorium, this little shack about 10 miles from where I live," says Keen. "I usually just end up hanging out there -- I'm a world-class hanger-outer -- but the songs really started coming to me. I had no intentions. But I ended up with these songs and found that I had enough for a record."
Those songs address everything from, well, his ability to simply hang out (the gently rollicking "Something That I Do") to his years of soaking up the atmosphere in clubs of all shapes and sizes (the woozy waltz "Goodnight Cleveland"). They flow from the grooves the way they flow from Keen's own spirit -- naturally, affably and with a lack of fanfare that's remarkably refreshing in this age of glitz.
"I was in flux before this project,I wasn't sure there was a purpose in compiling these songs in this old-fashioned way. But then I realized, well, it doesn't matter if there's a point -- this is my life, this is what I do and I'm proud of it."