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Keen shows life is apicnic

By Roy Kasten, June 1997

Robert Earl Keen comes from the notoriously songwriterly state of Texas, and he's always followed the writer's credo of writing what he knows, whether it's a jocund tale of fishing for big mouth bass or a chance encounter with a migrant farm worker.

Musically he has rarely tested the boundaries of singer songwriter country, but his new record, "Picnic," does just that, mixing catchy, almost pop like tunes, with a bright folk rock sound, resulting in his least immediately country recording, but one that's not without challenging moments.

"If nothing else, I wanted to imply something, rather than a complete wrap it up, 'the end' sort of resolve," Keen says about the approach.

The album was the first for Keen on a major label - Arista Austin - after releasing six albums on Sugar Hill since 1988.

In the following interview he shares his thoughts on the sound and stories of that record.

CST: John Keane (who produced REM and the Indigo Girls) seems important to this record. He produced it, plays on it, and you recorded it at his studio.
REK: He was very important. There were some real conscious decisions going on about this record, and there were some things that happened the way they happened. It was a great stroke of luck to work with John Keane. He made the record do what I wanted it to do sonically.

CST: And working with mandolin player Tim O'Brien?
REK: I knew Tim from a long, long time ago. The song on there, "The Coming Home of the Son and the Brother," was written by my friend J.D. Hutchinson probably about 15 years ago, and I met Tim through J.D. I had put a lot of fiddle on records; there's a fiddle on almost every record I had up to this one, and I just didn't want to do that anymore. So I replaced that with Tim's mandolin. I just wanted this to be more electric guitar and mandolin driven, rather than steel guitar and fiddle driven. I'd done all that. I get to take the artist's prerogative card, the "Get Out of Jail Free" card. By God, I want to do something different because I want to do something differently.

CST: I was impressed by the J.D. Hutchinson song; it's one of the strongest performances on the record.
REK: You know Tim O'Brien is a huge fan of J.D. J.D. had this bluegrass band in southeastern Ohio called the Hutchinson Brothers. And I'm talking about true, hillbilly, I mean, the rawest form of bluegrass. Every song is a murder ballad, true from the heart, not some made-up collegiate sort of thing. They love that sad, heart wrenching old bluegrass stuff. Just serious, real roots music. So Tim as a child was a huge fan of the Hutchinson Brothers, and some of his style comes from J.D. It might be the region as well.

CST: How's the record doing on the charts?
REK: It's been number one on the Americana charts for the last three weeks. And on the AAA charts, it has been in the top 20. So it's been doing great. They've sold a ton of 'em. Far and away, it's the best record right out of the box I've ever done. In terms of success and sales and stuff. In terms of my own satisfaction with it, I don't know, you always come away from records wishing you'd a done this or that. For this record, I have the smallest list of that stuff.

CST: What would you have done differently?
REK: I might put in a little more steel guitar and stuff. I love steel guitar!

CST: How did you decide on Margo Timmins (of the Cowboy Junkies) as a backup vocalist?
REK: The Cowboy Junkies are fans of mine. Her husband came up to me at SXSW in Austin two years ago and said what fans they were. So I invited them out to the house, and I told them about what I was planning. And he said, "I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but Margo would love to sing on a record if you made one." And I just thought, "Come on, this is like, I'm dreaming." ...I've been so lucky. I have this great background dealing with the best female singers I can possibly know. They might not be Beverly Sills or something, but in the character way, the personality way...On my first record I had Nanci Griffith sing, on "Bigger Piece of Sky" I had Maura O'Connell sing, and "Gringo Honeymoon," I had Gillian Welch sing on that, and now I have Margo Timmins. I always got real lucky that way.

CST: And having her sing on "Then Came Lo Mein" which is sort of a tender, silly song?
REK: You know she said, "Are you sure this is a duet?" And I said, "I don't know, but I feel in my heart that it is a duet" and she said, "OK..."

CST: Could you tell me about the first song on the CD, "Undone"? You've received some flack for that song.
REK: The way the story goes is there's a senator in Florida, Senator Grant, who dealt with the funding on some of the public radio stations. He objected to some of the programming on this station WMNF, and when they started getting into some pretty heated arguments about their funding, he went down for a meeting about it. He came away feeling he'd leave their funding intact and the station came out feeling everything was cool. He drove off in his car and they played this song "Undone"; when he turned on his radio that's what he heard and he felt that was typical of the attitude WMNF had, that they would play a song that wasn't happy, sparkly, you could dance to it sort of number. It has a hard message. He felt very offended by that and told them their funding was gone...A week ago we went to Tampa and played this benefit for the station; and just made the most of it. WMNF came up with this declaration of independence and had a big fund drive and raised up in the 100,000 of dollars. We made the best of it.

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