Tao of Keen

The road brings Robert Earl Keen to Chico

Robert Earl Keen—always on the road, trying to keep ahead of his dust.

Robert Earl Keen—always on the road, trying to keep ahead of his dust.

Photo By peter figen

Robert Earl Keen performs Thursday, Aug. 19, 8 p.m., at the El Rey Theatre. Tickets: $22-$25. www.ticketweb.com.
El Rey Theatre
230 W. Second St. www.jmaxproductions.net

El Rey Theatre

230 W. Second St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 342-2727

Masters of any discipline, whether it’s art or auto repair or Eastern mysticism, have one thing in common: They make things we laypeople consider difficult seem simple.

Such is the case with master storyteller Robert Earl Keen Jr., who visits the El Rey Theatre Thursday, Aug. 19. In a career spanning more than 20 years, he has woven slice-of-life snapshots, philosophical musings and (sometimes embellished) exploits of people he’s met into songs not unlike short stories, each of his 16 albums playing how a good anthology reads.

“I’m a lifelong reader and was an English major in college. I’ve written poetry my whole life,” Keen said via phone interview from Texas. The literary lean of his lyrics is prominent enough to prompt the question of whether his writing aspirations stretch beyond the song: “I’ve written a few short stories but I don’t send ’em out. My prose is clunky.”

Keen is the quintessential Texas troubadour, pairing his straightforward song-as-story lyricism with twangy, down-home country and delivering the whole package with an easy-going drawl that sometimes belies its true depth.

For example, the song “Something I Do” from 2009’s Rose Hotel extols the virtues of doing nothing: “I am the king of burning daylight, and holdin’ my own/ I’ve been doin’ alright, leaving well enough alone/ My Daddy told me I was lazy, my momma said, ‘I love you too’/ I kind of like just doin’ nothing, It’s something that I do.”

“It comes from the Tao Te Ching,” Keen said before explaining some of Rose Hotel’s other inspirations, both profound and mundane.

“The song ‘10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar’ comes from an old joke I used to tell my friend Duckworth when we ran out of stuff to talk about. ‘Goodbye Cleveland’ was about playing a show and watching all the funky, sad, old blues players pack their stuff in and out of these crummy little bars in downtown Cleveland.

“‘The Man Behind the Drums’ came from going up to Levon Helms’ showcase and home up in Woodstock, N.Y., called The Ramble.”

Keen’s 1989 song “The Road Goes on Forever” deserves a spot between The Boss’s “Born to Run” and Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” on the ultimate road-trip mixtape. At face value a tale of a small-town couple who hit the road on a crime spree (kinda like Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run” but with added balls and sans handclaps), it was inspired by a couple Keen knew who were always in trouble, although their real-life counterparts didn’t flee a murder scene and tangle with Cuban gangsters.

The Road is a recurring motif in Keen’s work, not just referring to a dusty highway or concrete interstate but in a larger sense, the capital “R” Road like Fellini’s La Strada or the Yellow Brick variety, something that not only leads to another city or another life, but also looms as a much greater symbol.

“I used to see the road as a metaphor for life when I was sitting around trying to figure out how to elaborate on my life and my thoughts,” Keen said. “Now I look at it like how [folk singer] Greg Brown says, as ‘a racetrack where the only prize is more.’”

And he’s content with that. Keen has said he wants to keep touring and playing as often and as long as he physically can: “I’m always writing songs, always looking forward to the next album, the next tour, the next show. The show is what it’s all about, and other than that I’m always out there burning up the highway and trying to keep ahead of my dust.”