Photography: Darren Carroll
Photography: Darren Carroll

The Texas troubadour talks about his experimental new abbreviated songs, his love of performing, and why he never expected anyone to like “Merry Christmas From the Family.”

It’s fortunate that Robert Earl Keen doesn’t always trust his own instincts about whether a song is any good. Otherwise, one of the most endearing Christmas tunes to ever bring a smile to even the most Grinch-like listeners might have never been played anywhere but Keen’s couch, for his own amusement.

Yep, “Merry Christmas From the Family” was a happy accident that turned out to be a signature hit. That doesn’t mean Keen won’t try other songwriting approaches.

Fresh off the road after a string of shows with his collaborator and former roommate, Lyle Lovett, Keen is currently amusing himself with a new technique that is quite the contrast from how he penned his holiday staple.

Rather than stick to the typical pop-song format of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, he’s creating small sketches of songs. No repeating choruses, none of the unspooling narratives that propel some of his best tracks. He calls these new creations “short songs for a short-attention-span culture.”

“They’re just about saying as much as you need to say in a song and then stopping,” he says. “Consequently, they last about 90 seconds. Some of them just say one thing and don’t really have a chorus or anything. Some of them are basically just a verse and a chorus.”

So far, the ones he’s played for audiences have been well received. One is called “Our Municipal Airport,” a tongue-in-cheek song about exactly what its title suggests and about as deep as a puddle of spilled beer (sample line: “Talk about planes, they got a lot”). Another is a short tribute to Johnny Cash that ends with a line we can all agree with: “I do declare, if God had a voice, he would sound like the Man in Black.” Most are on the whimsical side, he says, but others go for something deeper.

“The ones that I think work best are the ones that have a real truth factor, a human truth, universal truth factor that we all go, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what that feels like,’ ” Keen says. “So I’m looking for that, and that’s all I want to say.”

And he’s the first to admit that they don’t always work.

“There are some that really fall flat,” he says. “You think, Oh, I’ll get this idea in there, and it doesn’t work. I just like playing with them. Another thing about them, it seems like it’s easier to know which ones work than with real songs.

“With long songs, standard songs, I’m not always sure if those songs are good or not. I have to play them for people to see which ones are good.”

He brings up that holiday classic as an example.

“When I wrote one of my most famous songs, ... ‘Merry Christmas From the Family,’ I just wrote it as a big laugh to myself. I just had a huge time getting a huge laugh out this thing that I wrote, because I was from Houston, Texas. As far as I was concerned, nobody spent one second ever trying to write a song that was about the kind of Christmas that you experience in Houston, Texas.

“So I was having a huge time, and then I didn’t even think about it. And then I played it for someone and I got this great reaction, and I wasn’t even aware. I just thought it was fun for me. ... I’m not my best critic, for sure.”

As often as he plays the song, Keen says he never gets tired of performing it or any of his other audience favorites. He and his band, which now includes fiddler Brian Bacon and mandolin player Kym Warner accompanying him on tunes from his excellent 2015 album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, will get the chance to play it to their hearts’ content on his ongoing Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee Tour. Each year’s holiday tour has a different theme. Last year, Keen and his bandmates paid homage to country icons, singing classic covers in character, and the previous year was a 1970s retro hoot. This year’s theme was still unannounced at press time, but it seems safe to predict the show — short songs and long ones alike — will be fun for Keen and the audience.

Visit the singer's website for information on Robert Earl Keen’s Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee Tour, which wraps up December 30 in Fort Worth, Texas.

From the November/December 2016 issue.