Why Robert Earl Keen’s songs are getting shorter

The road may go on forever, but the songs are about to get shorter for Robert Earl Keen.

When he plays the Nutty Brown Cafe this Friday, Keen will be playing all the old hits plus some new ones from his latest No. 1 album, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.”  And he just might debut brand new songs, all 2 minutes or less in length.

Robert earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen. (TKO Public Relations)

The “abbreviated songs,” as Keen calls them, all part of a new album due sometime in the fall. He got the idea from helping his teenage daughter Chloe practice the violin for the Hill Country Youth Orchestra.

“To get kids to do something, you trade,” Keen said in a phone interview. “So I said, ‘If you practice for 30 minutes, I’ll play guitar and try to write a song while you practice.’ Some [songs] were stupid wash-outs, but some were kind of fun.”

Songs that made the cut include one about a municipal airport and a “short tribute to Johnny Cash.”

The point of the abbreviated songs is to express an idea clearly and concisely, whether that’s singing about an airport or a horse or about Johnny Cash, Keen said.

“I just thought in terms of, ‘This is the diamond of the whole idea, and nothing else matters.’ It’s just making sure that your song is pointed, no matter what the song is about.”

The quick, stripped-down nature of the new songs should help with what he dubbed the “short attention span culture” in a press release.

“People want to give you the opportunity to entertain them, but you’ve only got a minute to five minutes to get something out there,” Keen said. “And especially in the world of outdoor music, that window has gotten smaller. You’ve also got to know your audience- the best classical piece in the world isn’t gonna do great if you’re at Coachella.”

Keen will be at the Nutty Brown Cafe this Friday at 6 p.m. If you can’t make that concert, he’ll be on tour at least through July.


Author: Jake Harris

Social Content Producer for the Austin American-Statesman.

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