Robert Earl Keen has never cared about image, hits or anything superficial. The eclectic singer songwriter, who easily moves from country to bluegrass to roots-rock, stands out since he was always about penning gritty, relatable songs and avoiding the trappings of the industry.
“I was the original outlier, which lends me a much better view than those huge household names,” Keen said while calling from Forth Worth, Texas. “I just want to play real music for real people. I just want to be a real person, the same kid that sat bending over his guitar when he was 20.”
Keen, who will perform Tuesday at the Englert Theatre, has much in common with who he was while coming of age, an uncompromising English major during the late ’70s at Texas A&M. Keen and Lyle Lovett, who is cut in the same mold, became close friends while studying and creating music together at College Station, Texas.
“Lyle is one of the most polite people you will ever meet,” Keen said. “Kind and generous. We were fast friends back in school.”
Both Keen and Lovett have built solid careers as venerable singer-songwriters without huge hits. However, each has a loyal fan base. Since the beginning, I never really fit into a category like people wanted me to,” Lovett said. “I think starting like that gives you a different attitude and outlook. If you love music, you have a feeling for the songs. I do all of the different styles and what not because I love the music. I never thought I was a bluegrass singer, but I got to the point where I didn’t care and that’s how I did (2015’s) “Happy Prisoner.” It’s kind of been my history all along. I just want to do something and am about trying it out. I think it has been working out pretty well so far.”
Keen, 63, has had his share of hits, such as “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Feelin’ Good Again.” But his deep cuts and quirky tunes, such as the hilarious “Merry Christmas from the Family,” set Keen apart from many of his peers. The latter track is rich with detail and features some clever couplets.
“People show up because they want to hear my Christmas tune, no matter what season we are in,” Keen said. “Feelin’ Good Again” is my favorite because so many people have told me that it has helped them recover from hardships. That’s magic in a song.”
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Keen realizes that there is some transformative power in his material but he’s humble and approachable after shows.
“I think in terms of legends and household names as being pretty iconic with all of their hits, almost untouchable people,” Keen said. “I’d like to think of myself a little bit more of a man of the people.”
Keen is a man of the people but so are many of the flawed characters in his songs. His cuts are vivid and are often drawn from what he has experienced. “I’m very visual in my thinking when I write a song,” Keen said. “So I start with some sort of setting that I remember or had some impact, anywhere from sitting by a pond fishing or walking down a road, or what I am looking at that time. I feel like the way to construct a song with some sort of narrative value is creating the setting. As you grow and experience life, you see more of what life has to offer, it opens all kinds of imagery that you can draw from to write songs. Songs are this great form of communication. They go from this paper and this guitar out into the world. And you realize, ‘I touched somebody way out there. How’d that happen? I think sometimes a song just resonates with you and you’re not sure why. And that sort of thing doesn’t go away.”
The laidback Keen loves to write music but he also enjoys experiencing contemporary country artists.
“There’s a lot of great music coming out,” Keen said. “I think Nashville has been waiting for the reincarnation of Hank Wiliams since he died in 1953 and finally, there is actually somebody with that sort of talent and ability to sing. But not just the singing, but writing as well. I like his music and I like him as a person. Sliced bread and free whiskey ain’t got nothing on Tyler Childers. However, in my humble opinion, all three go together like the sun and moon and stars.”
It’s not surprising that Keen endorses Childers since both play country, bluegrass and roots-rock. Childers is talented but will he stand the test of time like Keen has over the last 40-years as a touring recording artist?
If You Go
• What: Robert Earl Keen
• When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
• Where: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
• Cost: $37.50
• Details: (319) 688-2653, www.englert.org