Songwriter Robert Earl Keen’s out-of-step path leads to BAC

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Iconic singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen plays Brooklyn Arts Center this Sunday. Photo by Darren Carroll.
Iconic singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen plays Brooklyn Arts Center this Sunday. Photo by Darren Carroll.

Robert Earl Keen doesn’t want to take up too much of your time chewing the fat.

That’s not to say fans would mind a little longwinded-ness, delivered in a charming Texas twang, from the clever and hilariously ornery singer-songwriter with a hefty appetite for tongue-in-cheek lyrical storytelling.

But Keen, who plays Wilmington’s Brooklyn Arts Center this Sunday, prefers to slice up the meat and skip the potatoes altogether. Hence, his latest pursuit: music delivered in small bites.

The prolific musician, whose long career admittedly includes one or two epic tunes, has recently taken to crafting 90-second songs.

“I was just was sort of playing around and wrote a song that lasted about 90 seconds,” Keen said simply of the concept. “I started thinking, we’re in this topsy-turvy world where we’re moving all the time. Everything’s shortened; our speech and writing is all abbreviated. So why not make short songs for our short attention-span culture?

“I like to be concise – that’s coming from a person who has written seven-minute songs that didn’t have a chorus. But I like the idea of getting the message out there, and then assume that the listener gets the point and doesn’t need all the fluff.”

If it sounds like an exercise in editing, Keen said it’s often more challenging to come up with enough words to fill the standard three-minute slot, a standard he said is a product of the industry and not the art itself.

“When you’re writing a song sometimes you get the first verse going and it’s pretty good, and then you get the chorus down and it’s pretty good. And then you get to the next verse and think, ‘what am I going to say now?’ It can end up being superfluous,” he said.

Being out of step with the mainstream is the path Keen has taken throughout his three decades in the business. Never aspiring to super-stardom, Keen remains more in line with fellow musicians’ musicians like Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, who, untethered by the constraints of a constant spotlight, are free to explore and evolve without fear of failure.

“Many times I need a swift kick in the ass to get started, so it doesn’t hurt to have some attention on me,” he said. “But I’ve always been most successful at doing something I’ve just thought up and decided to try…Consequently, I don’t feel bound by anybody’s definition of what I’m supposed to be. I do exactly what I want to do.”

Maybe that approach won’t get you on the cover of “Rolling Stone,” but Keen said that kind of notoriety is often fleeting, anyway. What matters more, he said, is laying down roots for longevity.

“You look at those guys, like John Prine or Elvis Costello or Tom Waits…they’ve had some pretty long careers, right? And over the long haul, there is some really interesting s**t going on. What is says is that there is a lot of self-motivated, self-created ideas, and over the years, those ideas look really good all together.”

Those ideas can also add up to a large catalog of original music to choose from during live shows. While last year Keen focused on tracks from his 2015 bluegrass album, he typically lets the venue set the stage for what he’ll play.

“We do the sound check together and go over a couple of things and then, I hate to sound too cosmic, but I just scope out the space. If it’s outdoors, I’ll play loud and proud. But I can be more nuanced when I’m going into a theater,” he noted.

Keen has played some interesting spots in the Port City—a backyard show many years ago put on as the grand prize of a contest on “The John Boy and Billy Show” and a “stinky, scary black box” downtown whose name he couldn’t quite place.

“I tend to recall the really bad and the really bizarre,” he said with a chuckle.

But when he takes the stage at the Brooklyn Arts Center for the first time this weekend, don’t expect Keen to take up House Bill 2 or any other serious discourse. With the same motivation that’s behind the 90-second songs, Keen’s reluctance to talk politics is rooted in his desire to serve up something fans will enjoy.

“I don’t think that’s my job,” he said of using the stage as a soapbox. “My job is to entertain people. I’m not going to get up there and start pontificating. In some ways, I think it’s a waste of time. It either puts people off or you’re preaching to the choir. I’ve always been the Labrador retriever of the entertainment industry. I want people to like me and I want to do my job; I want to get that dead duck from the middle of the pond for you.”

Huka Entertainment presents Keen in concert at the Brooklyn Arts Center, 516 N. Fourth St., at 8 p.m. Sunday. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets for the all-ages show are $22.50.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.

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