Robert Earl Keen – The whole world’s out there to write about
From backstage at every show you can see them, pressed in tight with their faces turned up. The music goes out over them and holds them in sway, boys along with girls, women along with men. Some are wearing cowboy hats and cowboy shirts, and there are plenty of jeans and boots in whatever state this is. They know the words to the songs and they sing them out loud and they rarely move from the positions they have worked themselves into, up front, where the press of a few thousand human bodies behind them cannot be gentle. But they stand, moving under all the sound, under lights that turn colors the spectrum of the rainbow and shine down on the band and their faces, and the ones in front are held in place by the dark-haired man at the microphone who is playing his shiny Martin and singing his songs, and by the players who are helping him tell his stories through the fine weaving of all their sweet notes together. I’ve stood there where those out front on the floor stand. I know what they hear. I know what they see. And I know what they feel that makes them look that way.
They just love the song, bro.
Austin, Spring 1999: Soundcheck for a big show at Austin Music Hall takes place around the middle of the afternoon, and customized buses are idling on the gravel beside a loading dock, sleek streamlines with soft colors, dark glass, fancy chromium wheels. The one I’ve just stepped down from rolls to 130 shows a year. This is my first visit to the capital city of Texas, but I rode a vibrating 650 Yamaha from North Mississippi to Waco and back one cold and rainy October in 1973, suffered the heartbreak of hypothermia, and stretched the shit out of the chain.
The wide side doors of the music hall are open and the noise of amplified guitars tuning up is pouring out, drums rattling loudly in practice, and people are wandering around, carrying cables and equipment, sound guys and light guys and people delivering kegs of beer and the musicians who are getting ready to rehearse. South By Southwest has just started, and Robert Earl Keen and his band are slated to close the show tonight after Lucinda Williams, who’s on after Patty Griffin, who’s on after the Continental Drifters. It’s balmy and sunny in the parking lot and only mid-March, but spring comes to visit Texas early. These guys are already planting cotton out here. I’m just following Robert and Bill Whitbeck around. Bill plays serious bass in the band and sings backup, too. We’re watching what’s going on while Lucinda’s doing her soundcheck. There appears to be a line for soundcheck since Patty Griffin is sitting outside and a few Drifters are drifting around. I wave to Psycho Sister Susan Cowsill.
Everything’s pretty wonderful out here. After a night in the lovely and historic Austin Motel, just down the street from the Continental Club, Robert Earl Keen’s management has me comfortably stashed in the spanking clean Homestead Village, right across from Whataburger, which I will find out later is a popular place after midnight when everybody’s trying to find some burgers to soak up all the beer they drank while listening to all the music they heard. (Way I know that is I had to wade in there one night to get a burger myself and it was asscheek to elbow with obviously hungry but apparently musically-sated folks trying to sober up.)
While electric guitars wail at some pretty good decibels I wander on in and out onto the immense empty floor, which is lots bigger than a gymnasium, and look up. The ceiling is very high and at the back there’s a balcony that’s a nice touch. Probably restricted, but Robert’s gotten me an All Access pass, says WALKING DISTANCE TOUR on it, looks official, and he’s also been kind enough to supply me with one of those pink $95 wristbands so that I can get into whatever musical events I want to. And boy do I want to. I aim to see Billy Joe & Eddy Shaver and the Gourds and Slobberbone and Fred Eaglesmith and Willie & Leon are supposed to do a show together I hear and I want to see Alejandro Escovedo and Tom Waits and hosts of others. But mainly I’m here at the invitation of this particular band of guys from Texas that I’ve gotten to know and whose music I’ve grown to love, because of all the songs.
And I mean of such a wide variety. There is a song about somebody leaving on a morning train and a song about Lo Mein. There are songs about hitching your donkey to an ironwood tree and drinking cold beer in the shade with a crusty caballero, and songs about stealing Charolais heifers and getting caught by the law. And getting in jail and drunk and in love and out of it too, songs about the ghost of Langston Hughes smoking cigarettes and drinking his booze in the corner of a bar, even one about Too-tall Annie, who kept her money in a Bible she never read, and whose first ex-husband Lefty got found in his new pickup truck at the bottom of the riverbed. Robert names Guy Clark and Loudon Wainwright III as a few of his musical influences and I’m not surprised.
Lucinda finishes up, Patty Griffin comes in and does hers and finishes up, and then it’s Robert’s turn. The rest of the band has come in by now and they’re all up on the high stage, taking their places, holding on to their instruments, Tom Van Schaik sitting down at the drum set and hitting a few strokes. Tom’s a hard-working man when the music starts. I stand around and listen to them warm up for a while, and resident guitar wizard Rich Brotherton has what looks like four or five different guitars he’s going to play tonight. Bill’s got his bass on and is hitting a few licks, bawm bawm ba bawm bawm bawm. Bryan Duckworth’s standing up there sawing a few strokes on his fiddle. His mandolin’s in a rack back there. I’ve swapped some letters with Bryan and we’ve exchanged goat pictures. Robert’s got his guitar strapped on and it looks like he’s ready. It takes a while because they have to get it right, raise this, lower that, take some of this out, put some more of that other in. After a while they get everything in tandem and they swing into a number and do one. It booms out all over the big empty hall. They do a couple. It sounds great. It’s really going to sound great in front of all these people tonight. I almost can’t wait.
But other things are coming to help fill up the evening. It’s going to be a busy night in Austin. The whole city is full of people here to hear music. Bill gives me a ride over to my hotel in his pickup, which is similar to mine and therefore feels quite homey. My hotel room has a kitchen, stove, refrigerator, pots and pans with utensils, so that you could entertain pretty well, but I don’t actually have anything I can fix him like a nice pork chop. I fix him a Coke over ice, then change clothes, and we hang out some, and then he drives me over to Las Manitas, where I’m going to eat some good Mexican food and hang with Alejandro and watch his musical play, By The Hand Of The Father, featuring Ruben Ramos, the Hispanic Caruso, on throaty vibes, until Robert’s show tonight. Bill lets me out and I tell him bye and thanks a lot and that I’ll see him later, which is true.