This Texas veteran isn’t trying to be clever, but don’t go thinking he’s cymbal-minded

Robert Earl Keen has always been a clever songwriter—perhaps, he recently decided, a little too clever for his own good. “I was always trying to think outside the box,” says the Texas stalwart, whose new Ready for Confetti is his 12th studio effort in 27 years. “For this album, I didn’t concern myself with that. If it was a straightforward love song, fine. If it had a straightforward message, that was fine, too. I wasn’t going to sabotage a final verse just to be clever or weird.”

Keen changed his songwriting environment along with his method. Traditionally he’s secluded himself for several weeks in a hillside cabin when writing songs for a new album. For Confetti he allowed himself the luxury of writing on the road. “The results were great, because I didn’t have time to over-think the songs,” he says. “I did very little self-editing.” The tactic also helped him keep his audiences’ desires in mind. “I wanted the songs to have bounce, songs you could tap your toe to and sing easily,” he says. “They’re more melodic and rhythmic than what I’ve typically done.”

Stylistically, Ready for Confetti ranges from prairie ballads to barnyard stomps to sprightly country jazz. Venerated Texas producer and pedal-steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, who oversaw 2009’s The Rose Hotel, helmed the recording. “Lloyd has the best work ethic of anyone I’ve ever been around,” Keen marvels. “Plus he’s also flat-out friendly to everyone. He acts as your host, not just your producer.” Among the intriguing notions he and Maines cooked up together was eliminating cymbals from the sound. “Cymbals sometimes compete too much with the vocals. It was a bit of a capricious decision,” Keen admits with a chuckle. “[Drummer] Tom Van Schaik had to play with one hand behind his back, so to speak. But all the musicians moved to a new level of greatness.”

Another surprise heard on Confetti is a new recording of Keen’s “Paint the Town Beige.” Originally featured on the 1993 album A Bigger Piece of Sky, the tune is presented here in a more stripped-down form. “It’s a song I rarely do onstage, and yet it’s the song people comment upon most often,” observes Keen, 55. “That’s true even of my fellow songwriters, who are always telling me it’s their favorite of the things I’ve written. I wanted to re-introduce it to the world.”

–Russell Hall

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