As I waited for Robert Earl Keen to call, I calmly went over my notes and made sure that the recorder was set up and ready to do its job – all was cool. The phone rang, I hit the record button, and hit the talk button on the phone – I had nothing but a dial tone. What the hell? The phone rang again, I hit the record button again, and hit the talk button on the phone – again – nothing but a dial tone. Then I remembered – hit the talk button first, then hit the record button. Damn, I hoped that Robert wasn’t too pissed. I was no longer calm. I waited for what seemed like an eternity (it was only about thirty seconds) for the phone to ring again – and it did. My anxiety faded after the first few minutes talking with Robert. It was a lot of fun. Here’s part one of that interview.
OKOM: Robert, how are you doing?
OKOM: Sorry about the phone problem. I, uhh, dropped it… twice.
REK: No problem. [Laughs] Don’t worry about it!
OKOM: First off, I want to thank you for taking the time out for this interview. I really appreciate it.
OKOM: I wanted to ask you about a few things. I’d like to talk about Rose Hotel, and I’d like to go back a few albums as well.
OKOM: You know, you and I are the same age, and I also had a car go up in flames back in 1974.
REK: Wow. Now that’s worth going over, huh?
OKOM: Yeah, but I’m SURE that your story is much better than mine. Do you mind telling me about that car of yours in flames on the cover of your Picnic album?
REK: Yeah, It was at Willie Nelson’s  picnic that I went to. I had a date, which was really rare for me.
OKOM: Really? [Laughs]
REK: Yeah, so, I had a date, and I took her to the picnic. You know, I guess it was sort of on the final days of free love, braless girls, and all that great stuff. We just kind hung out at the picnic. The day was a little bit hazy; I’d say a lot of it was fuzzy.
OKOM: Well, it was the seventies.
REK: Yeah, some self-induced and maybe some of it was the weather. But the car caught on fire out in the parking lot and I didn’t have anything to do with it. But you could see the big huge plumes of smoke behind the stage. They came out and they explained how they had this fire out in the parking lot. They called out my license plate number, and I just happened to know it. I remember just running and running through all the people hollering that my car was on fire. People were laughing and pointing. I finally got out there and it was really, truly just burnt to nothing.
REK: Yeah. I just literally sat down on the burnt grass there and started weeping. My girlfriend, my date – she thought that it was the funniest thing she ever saw. So, that was the kind of the end of that relationship, I think.
OKOM: Oh, man! [Laughs]
REK: No, man, it was. We had to hitchhike back. It was some kind of deal.
OKOM: That’s a great story. Hey, I’ve been listening to you for a long time –
REK: Uh-huh, good.
OKOM: – and your songs, your lyrics tell such vivid stories full of out-of-the-ordinary characters. Do these stories sometimes stem from personal experiences and people you’ve met or known?
REK: Well, I think that every good piece of fiction stems from a true story. I always get a kick out of how movies always say it’s from a true story. Well, hell, it’s all from some kind of point of truth. It just depends on how much your imagination kicks in. So, it really varies with me. It can come from something small – me seeing some kind of scene or scenario in my imagination, and then taking it on from there literally. For instance, the song “Gringo Honeymoon” that we still play is almost a true journalistic telling of an exact story.
REK: Yeah, so I try to go from being as imaginative as I can, to sometimes trying to write down exactly what happened because – to be cliché – truth is stranger than fiction in some instances.
OKOM: That’s true. You know, one time I was talking to Todd Snider about his song called “You Think You Know Somebody” from his first album. I was asking him what inspired him to write that because I thought maybe it was based on someone he knew. He told me he was trying to do what you did with “The Road Goes on Forever” – and that’s to tell a story with an ending that you don’t see coming.
OKOM: Yeah, and I thought that was pretty cool. He told me that he really worked hard at it too. Was that your intention [with “The Road Goes on Forever”]?
REK: I always feel that I have an inner need to have some kind of wrap up. I don’t know, some sort of dramatic ending. I like drama – in movies, in books, in songs – in any kind of narrative. So, yes, that’s almost always my intention. Moreover, in the world of Todd Snider, Todd has taken it and gone beyond. I mean I’m completely amazed with what Todd does, how brilliant he is with not only his songs, but his storytelling, and his whole show. I think that he’s a talent that has separated him apart from all the others. I think that he’s almost created his own genre.
OKOM: Yeah, and in a way, you have too. But yours goes back so much further and there are guys like Todd that look up to you.
REK: And that’s quite a compliment to me, but he took it on and moved it to something else. It’s nice. I’m just glad that I know him.
OKOM: It has got to be a great feeling that you inspired guys like that.
REK: It is. Sometimes I’m surprised when Todd gives me credit for anything, but he’s just very magnanimous in that way.
OKOM: You’ve never really been mainstream country. You do things your own way. Was there ever a point in your career where you’ve thought, “Maybe I should be more mainstream?”
REK: Well, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess there were times when I’d think that I’d want to be mainstream, you know, written mainstream kind of songs. But it really never was meant to be. I haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about it. But I certainly have wondered what it takes to be mainstream, because I’m not really sure what that is. Just about the time that you think that you’ve figured things out – it changes. You know, I see people with songs these days that I wrote fifteen years ago, basically the same song, that’s now mainstream. I had people – in radio and stuff – back then tell me that’ll never happen; we’ll never play that kind of stuff on the radio.
OKOM: Now they’re playing something that’s damn near the same thing.
REK: Yeah, but you know, we all have our own destinies and I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with that whole idea. So, I just like to write what I write.
OKOM: Right, right, [Laughs] which a lot of us appreciate.
REK: Well, good! I’m glad that I do connect with people. That’s the main thing. If I didn’t connect then I wouldn’t be doing this.
OKOM: I think it comes back to your style of storytelling is what people connect with. They can visualize those settings.
REK: Uh-huh, good.
OKOM: There’s also another group of your songs that I kind of categorized as non-traditional, sad love songs like “Broken End of Love” and “For Love.” The title track of Rose Hotel is another one of those types of love songs.
REK: Right, right.
OKOM: You know, the two characters never meet; they never come together.
REK: [Laughs] Yeah, right.
OKOM: Do you put a lot of yourself and your own experiences with relationships into those types of songs?
REK: I think the only way you can tap into some kind of an emotional well is to be putting yourself into that situation. I’m always feeling like that – even in the smallest of relationships – sometimes there’s that inner need to really, really have some kind of touchstone or some sort of a connection with that other person. And many, many times you just barely miss it. Those sleepless nights that you can’t figure things out, you try to work out – where did I miss that connection? Why did it dissolve? Why did it not quite come to its fruition?
OKOM: That’s interesting.
REK: Particularly because I don’t feel that it’s my strength as a writer, you know the emotional song or almost even the spiritual song. I think about those a lot more than I do on any kind of a narrative song.
OKOM: So, is it more work for you to do that?
REK: It is more work, yes it is. Because I think that you have to peel back the layers. I always wonder if I’m just emotionally bankrupt or can I just not peel back the layers and be more honest with myself.
OKOM: But your goal is to really hit that vein and hit the emotions.
REK: Yes, very much so, yes.