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Robert Earl Keen on Montana, music and public lands

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Keen to share stage with Lukas Nelson at Aug. 10 Wildlands Festival


By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

It’s not easy to sum up a career, especially that of folk-country legend Robert Earl Keen, but his lyrics “the road goes on forever and the party never ends” comes close.

EBS caught up with Keen in between stops on a tour that never seems to end and asked him about the highlights of his 30-year career, his sentiments about Montana, and the country’s public lands.

Explore Big Sky: You’ve been performing in Montana for nearly 30 years and last played in Big Sky at the 2015 PBR. What changes in the state have you observed over the decades?

Robert Earl Keen: The changes in Montana are many, however, the natural beauty of Montana is second to none.

EBS: How has your songwriting and sound changed over the 18 albums you’ve made since your debut with 1984’s “No Kinda Dancer?” How has the music industry changed since then?

R.E.K.: Like Jesse Winchester said in his song “Rumba Man,” “I’m the same ol’ guy that I used to be, I haven’t changed at all.” Music industry? It’s the same as Hunter S. Thompson said: “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

EBS: What has been the most memorable concert of your career and why?

R.E.K.: My most memorable concert was last year at the Hurricane Harvey Relief Benefit with George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Mathew McConaughey and me. Great artists, incredible band; that show helped raised over 70 million dollars for the hurricane victims.

EBS: With what musician were you most honored to share the stage?

R.E.K.: My hero, Willie Nelson.

EBS: Your fan base runs the gamut of young and old, hipsters and country music lovers. Why do you think your songs appeal to such a spectrum of listeners?

R.E.K.: Most of my [songs] tell a story in an easy way. People love stories. Also, my singing doesn’t intimidate people. Anybody can sing as good as I can. 

EBS: You have a sparse building on your west Texas ranch known as the Scriptorium that is your sanctuary for song-writing and solitude. Why is that environment conducive, and critical, to your creativity?

R.E.K.: I love the outdoors, helps me think. The scriptorium is a little rock building on our ranch. It’s very cozy.

EBS: The Aug. 10 Wildlands Festival in Bozeman is a celebration of Montana’s wild and open spaces, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit three nonprofits that work to protect them. What is your favorite wild and open space? What are your thoughts on the controversy over public lands?

R.E.K.: I love Big Bend National Park. It’s an incredible, wild and open space. Our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents for many reasons, but his expansion of the national park system insured protected lands for all Americans. Lands that everyone could call their own, roam on, and enjoy the majesty of our great country. I believe we, as Americans, should honor his legacy.

EBS:You have named Willie Nelson as one of your musical influences. At Wildlands you will be co-headlining with his son, Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real. Do you have any musical surprises for Wildlands concert-goers because you’re sharing the bill with Lukas?

R.E.K.: I love Lukas. He’s a fantastic musician and songwriter. One never knows what will happen at the concert where we share the same stage. 

EBS: Is there something you’re looking forward to about playing an outdoor venue during a Montana summer? Or something special about performing concerts here?

R.E.K.: It doesn’t matter if I’m performing or sitting in a rockin’ chair, there is no better place to be than Montana.

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