CST: I also wanted to ask about "Shades of Gray," a song about some kids that get stopped after the Oklahoma City bombing. It sounds like one of those stories you could have picked up from reading something in the paper. Or is it completely fabricated?
REK: That comes from three different things that are going on ... I work from images, really in most of my songs; something that pops in my head, and try to describe it, put it in some rhyming format. I had this image of three guys in this pick up for about 15 years, and I wrote all kind of stupid, corny songs around it, and they never worked and I trashed 'em all, I never sang them in public ever. But I couldn't get rid of it. Also I'm stubborn about this kind of thing, once I get this image. I can't tell you exactly why I want to write about it, it just seems like I want to, and sometimes it doesn't work.... Anyway this one kept coming up, so I started working on the song. I had been in Oklahoma City. I actually played the day after the bombing, and it was a real eye-opening experience as far as the devastation and what it does to the town and its personality and the undercurrent of sadness and confusion. It had a big effect on me. I started writing about these three guys. I put it together with this historical event which is something else I always wanted to do, and then it occurred to me that around this time when they were scurrying about to find whoever did this, they must have stopped a jillion people, there must have been a jillion misadventures interrupted or created because of that one event. That's how I hooked them up. It's not oblique really, but it interests me as a story. That's how I pulled it off.
CST: That song documents a crucial time in modern American history from this peripheral angle of these kids who get stopped by the police...
REK: Yeah, and it's something that could happen to you.
Keen goes major label route
After half a dozen albums on the well-respected, but small Sugar Hill label, Robert Earl Keen decided it was time for a change.
He signed in early 1996 with Arista Austin, a country-oriented Texas songwriter with a major Nashville label. "I just needed to move," Keen says following a Cambridge, Mass. concert. "I needed to change. I was restless."
He says he liked his time at Sugar Hill, but "if I were to make a move, that was the time to make it. I had just felt I'd been in a rut." Keen also felt he went as far as he could go with Sugar Hill.
Keen says he previously had chances to sign with major labels, but didn't think the situation was right. "Arista came to me and said they were really liked what we were doing. It was just the right time."
He said a key part was Arista did not want him to change, a pitfall sometimes resulting when an artist signs with a label. Keen said Arista heads told him, 'We just want you to do what you feel you are doing.
Keen said he maintained his independence in the studio. "I have not encountered any of that sort of thing. I keep thinking when is the honeymoon going to end." "Picnic," nevertheless, differs sonically from previous efforts in having a harder edge to it. Apparently it was his choice.
Arista is marketing the album in the rock market, not country. "That was their decision," Keen says. "I figured I'd go with it. I definitely don't consider it a country record. I consider it a folk rock record.