Video Feature & Web-Exclusive Interview
Video:  “Merry Christmas from the Family


Robert Earl Keen is presenting his most extensive holiday tour yet with the all-new REK’s Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree. Now in its sixth year, Keen’s holiday tours have become a family tradition in his native Texas and beyond.

The set list includes Keen classics like “Merry Christmas from the Family,” as well as a tip of the hat to legendary musicians like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam and Neil Young. “It will be country but we’ll explore the country-rock side of things—and we might mashup a couple of tunes,” Keen says. “If you’re not in the holiday spirit now, you will be when you leave this show.”

The festive 19-city tour began November 27 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and concludes December 30 in Fort Worth, Texas. Support acts on select dates of the tour include Elizabeth Cook, Doyle & Debbie, Robert Ellis, and The Quebe Sisters. The Huffington Post described the annual concert: “For the uninitiated, it’s part comedy/variety show (think The Carol Burnett Show of old) and part musical cornucopia that’s full of pleasant surprises. It’s akin to Christmas morning, but one where Keen and his merry band of musicians continue to unwrap gifts you didn’t even know you were hoping for until they share them on stage.”

Keen first included “Merry Christmas from the Family” on his 1994 album, Gringo Honeymoon. In 1996, it reappeared on the album No. 2 Live Dinner, which Dualtone Records just released on vinyl for the first time on December 10. University of Texas Press released Keen’s companion book, also titled Merry Christmas from the Family, in 2005. You may be able to catch one of the remaining shows—the rest of REK’s Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree tour dates include: Oklahoma City, OK (The Jones Assembly), Fayetteville, AR (Walton Arts Center), Austin, TX (Moody Theater), Houston, TX (House of Blues), Nashville, TN (Ryman Auditorium), Dallas, TX (House of Blues), and Fort Worth, TX (Bass Performance Hall).

We talked with Robert Earl Keen about the current Christmas Tour, his songwriting, the many people who influenced him, his recognizable sound and his unique friendship with the brilliantly innovative luthier of Collings Guitars, the late Bill Collings.

ROBERT EARL KEEN Web-Exclusive Interview
with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David

Tell us how the idea of “Merry Christmas from the Family” came to you?
In November 1993, I was writing this record, Gringo Honeymoon. I knew we were starting early in the next year to record it. This was back when I used to sit down and write song after song, grinding them out. I was in a little apartment in Nashville. I hit the wall and everything I was coming up with was terrible stuff. I took a break, and thought—it’s OK because I have all of December to write it. But I realized, oh no—December is Christmas. No one wants to do anything during that time. I won’t be off the hook. I’ll have to go and do things. I had this panic moment, and then I thought—I’m just going to write my own Christmas song. I’m going to tell it the way I see it, the way I grew up with it—the way it feels to me. I truly wrote this song to amuse myself.

How did that song get on the album?
I played it for Garry Velletri, who worked for Bug Music and produced that record. He’s a good guy and only produced two records—and they were mine. He didn’t even play an instrument but he was good at producing. I loved the guy. He just knew music. He was from New York and lived in Nashville for many years. When I played songs I had for Garry, he did what he would always do—rub his fingers together and nod. There was never too much approval—just enough to keep you going.

Did you feel good about the songs you played for him?
Yes. Some of those songs we did are staples now. But when I finished showing him the songs he said, “What else do you have?” (Laughs) I said, “I don’t really have anything else.” He said, “Nothing? You don’t have anything?” And I said, “Well, I got this.” And I played him this Christmas song. All of a sudden, this guy who hardly said two words—was laughing and slapping his knee. It was surprising to me. But I realized it had done something to Garry. I was surprised. I played it in a little club, and it was like playing a hit. It was as close to the feeling of ever having a hit. (Laughs)

How is this Christmas Tour different from a regular concert of yours?
It’s not really about me and my songs. It’s about bringing in the Christmas season. We created a big set that we carry around on a truck, and have a couple of elves that help me every year. We put up the set and think of a theme—like three or four years ago we did a 70s Christmas. The whole band was dressed in 70s garb and costumes. We went as deep as singing “Smoke on the Water” and “Stairway to Heaven.” To hit the high spots, we play about five or six of my songs, and of course the Christmas song, “Happy Holidays Y’all,” which does not have the pizzazz as the first song, but we’re all looking for content—right? (Laughs)

Have you written any other Christmas songs?
No. (Laughs) I never wanted to write follow-up songs. But one time I got into a jam with a record company. They twisted my arm to write another Christmas song, and that’s how “Happy Holidays Y’all” came out. My heart was never behind it—although, now that we play it off as a big laugh, it’s pretty fun. I never thought I was going to be in the Christmas business. (Laughs)

Has this tour become a mainstay?
We’ve been doing it for a few years. It’s a regular show, and it’s also a dilemma. I can’t quite get away from it, and I don’t know if I wanna get away from it. Every year we start cranking up again. It’s not about being a touring band anymore. It’s a show. This is pretty much doing the same show every night—we have set pieces moving and the way we move the guys in an out—which is not like my regular show which is different from night to night. In these shows, each band member plays a part of a song just to get the idea across. It truly just grew from playing a lot shows in December.

How did this show evolve?
Years ago, I used to play about an hour and a half before I played the Christmas song, and then everyone would be happy. I felt people in December wanted the Christmas songs—and waited for it. I swear they’d blank out until I played the Christmas song and then they’d jump up and holler, have a good time, and go home and be happy. The rest of the set seemed like window dressing. In an effort to amuse ourselves a little bit more, we started dressing up in costumes. One time I hired an actor who played Scrooge for us. It began the show that way, and in the middle he did a 10-minute soliloquy.

Your band seems integral in this show.
The band actually made a really great record of all the happy Holiday songs, like “Winter Wonderland,” but it’s an instrumental swing record. They used to open the show, but that got so crazy—all of them changing costumes from being The Xmas Men. These guys are great players, but that got complicated. So we pared it down to having a theme, and we get a really strong opening act like Doyle & Debbie, Robert Ellis, and others. Last year we had the Hot Club of Cowtown. We get strong, like-minded acts to go along. This show is only slightly different from last year which was the Family Country Gold Jamboree—honoring Bob Wills and some of that old stuff. This year we’re doing Neil Young’s “Back to the Country,” and it’s basically a country-rock show.

Were there any Christmas albums you listened to when you were growing up?
It was pretty limited. Willie Nelson is one of my favorites. And the only song I can remember is “Pretty Paper”—one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs.

Who inspired you to write songs?
My mother had a great deal to do with my love of verse and music. She gave me a quarter for memorizing poems—Robert Frost, Lord Byron, Countee Cullen, Robert Browning. She also listened to country music. She loved Eddie Arnold and Marty Robbins. The first song I remember knowing from beginning to end was Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” that was a Marty Robbins single. Lovely melody and Marty’s voice was unmatched.

Do you remember the first songs you wrote?
I sang for my mother. I was eight. I didn’t know that people wrote songs as a way to make a living. I thought it was fun and that music just swelled up and came out of you.

Top 5 musicians who inspired you?
Willie Nelson, Norman Blake, Freddie King, John Hartford, Lyle Lovett.

Tell us how Willie Nelson inspired you?
Willie Nelson caught my ear in a musical way. I loved that muted velvet sound of his classical guitar. “Hello Walls” was the first song I learned to play on the guitar.

How about Norman Blake?
Norman Blake influenced me in a way that no one else could. He played the rhythm and sang, and then he picked the melody. I thought that was the most authentic way one could perform a song. No tricks, just beautiful playing and pretty good singing. When I realized Norman wrote many of his songs, I wanted to be Norman.

Tell us about Freddie King.
I loved Freddie King. He was one of the first concerts I ever saw—Freddie sweating his butt off—belting out the blues like he invented it. Well, I wanted to me Freddie for a while after that concert. (Laughs)

How about John Hartford?
John Hartford was a big influence primarily because he taught me to love the sound of a banjo. Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” is my all-time favorite song. There will only be one Hartford.

Robert Earl Keen, photographed in Kerrville, Texas on July 4 2016. Photograph © 2016 Darren Carroll

How does Lyle Lovett continue to inspire you?
My friend Lyle Lovett is maybe my biggest influence. He showed me how to put it all together. The songwriting, the playing, performing—he had it all from the time I met him. I’m not sure I would have stayed in music if it weren’t for him.

What are your Top 5 favorite albums?
Chicken Skin Music (1976) – Ry Cooder
Shotgun Willie (1973) – Willie Nelson
Rumor and Sigh (1991) – Richard Thompson
Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (1977) – Townes Van Zandt
The Fields of November (1974) – Norman Blake

Which instruments/equipment can you not live without?
I can’t live without any of my instruments. I love them all. Most are guitars, but I have mandolins, ukes, an upright bass, a cello, banjos, electric guitars and all kinds of percussion stuff. I sold one guitar years ago, and I wish I had it back. It was a Martin D-35, and I wanted to get a D-28. I play Collings guitars. I write with a guitar most of the time. I have a lot of Collings Guitars, and those instruments help my sound. Steve McCreary and I have been pals forever. He’s done so much for me. I met Bill Collings through Lyle, just about a year after Lyle met Bill—he was a real smart man. The first Collings guitar I got was around 1992-93. It’s a really nice parlor guitar. Then he made me a custom guitar—and that’s the one I play all the time.

Tell us why Collings Guitars are important to you and your sound.
Collings guitars are special, but it’s hard to put your finger on what makes them that way. Actually maybe that’s the answer. When you put your finger, or fingers, on a Collings guitar you feel special, like you’re holding the perfect instrument. Corny?  Maybe, but I’m not kidding. My first Collings, “the bass,” is as true and perfect as the day Bill Collings handed it to me. More so, actually. And every single time I let someone play “the butte” circa 2007, they stop mid-riff and say, “What the hell? Where did you get this guitar?” I say, “I got it from Bill Collings.” Wow! I miss that brilliant, zany, take-it-to the-edge-everyday man. God bless him.

Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
I don’t remember hearing my songs on the radio—I’ve missed that somehow. However, we were traveling across Kansas in our trusty RV, going west, listening to NPR. They ended a segment with a song from my best friend, Bryan Duckworth, who was in the band at the time. The song was called “Clamboree.” Playing a bad note in a song is called a clam. The song had numerous, albeit intentional “clams,” in the body of the piece. It was a scream. We laughed all the way to Colorado.

What PRO (Performing Rights Organization) are you with?
BMI—long time BMI. When somebody asks me, a kid or anyone who asks, what they should do, I tell them, “Pick one that works for you. I’m with BMI. I like them. But go to one and sign up. It is their job to help their writers. That’s what BMI has done for me. They helped me when all else failed. When I was flailing out there in the ocean, somebody finally threw me a life raft. It was always BMI. I owe a lot to my long-time friend over there, Jody Williams.

What’s next?
Well, right now it’s all about the Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree. Come out and have a little fun with us.

Where can your new fans get more info and stay updated?

comment closed

Copyright © 2017 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·