His work is never done

Robert Earl Keen would like nothing better than to save country music

What has happened is that talents like Earle, Keen, Junior Brown, and Lovett have forced country music to subdivide into two distinct movements--mainstream Nashville and a renegade band of irritated singers and songwriters who revere the authenticity of old-time country music and deplore the cookie-cutter mentality that has produced a generation of Chippendale dancers in Hoss Cartwright hats.

"It had to happen," Keen says. "I know what I write is country music, but then there's this whole other country music--commercial country--and I don't feel like I'm part of that country at all. I don't sing like those guys, I don't dress like those guys, and I couldn't get up there and sing one two-minute-and-51-second hit after another about the some old crap. It's boring."

The fact that Keen has inked a deal with a big label like Arista Texas is another sign that a lot of country music fans are just as sick of the radio formats and slick TNN videos as he is. It's an opportunity Keen is delighted to have.

"I just wanted a chance to move up and get bigger than just my Texas base," he says. "Sugar Hill had done a great job, but my whole thing has gotten larger and larger with each album. I'd almost always run into a wall with Sugar Hill. It was just a question of resources at hand, and I needed to get on the fast track with some of those bigger acts." Keen laughs. "Hey, at a big label, they pay a lot of money to a lot of people to just sit around and think of shit. At this point of my career, I need that."

And so Robert Earl Keen moves on to the next level. It means, sometimes, streamlining the set lists to keep the rowdy college guys happy, and saving some of the more introspective tunes for the smaller solo shows Keen likes to schedule to keep the body of material represented.

"That's become sort of a problem," Keen says, "in that the softer, prettier side is just as much a part of me as the louder, more rambunctious stuff, [but] with bigger crowds you've got to stay on top of the wave."

At 40, blasting into a major-label deal at a time when many rock acts have already joined up with Kansas-Black Oak Arkansas geriatric tours, Keen is fit and rested, primed to return country music to the dignity whence it sprang.

"The nights get shorter and the hangovers get longer," he says wonderingly, "and I've generally had to back off the wildness. Because, anymore, I just can't afford to wipe out a whole day. I feel like my gift is tenuous, and by God I'm gonna take care of it." He laughs. "At least, most of the time."

Robert Earl Keen performs June 13 and 14 at the Sons of Hermann Hall.

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