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Keen Quits the Highway 

Americana veteran glad to take act to new label

For some performers, music is an industry, a factory where product is turned out solely in hopes of profit. But Robert Earl Keen takes a different approach. "My idea about this whole business is to have some fun and create some kind of challenge and see if I can pull it off," Keen says. "And if it gets to be boring or tedious, I don't want to do it."

That attitude led in part to the singer's parting with his former record label, Lost Highway, which has a reputation for being one of the most liberal independent labels. Keen says that on paper and theoretically it was the perfect label for him, but they did not get along from the very beginning. "The closest thing I could describe it to is a really bad marriage," says Keen, whose one and only 17-year marriage is still in good shape.

But the label marriage didn't work out, and the grounds for divorce were inattention. "They didn't fight with me," Keen says, "they ignored me." The singer asked for and was granted a release.

"The guy who runs the label says, "nobody ever asks to be released.' I said, "Well, Jeez, I am. Why? "Because I'm not having any fun! It sucks here.' "

Keen took his business, his ideas, his songs and sense of humor to the Audium/Koch label, home to an eclectic array of artists including Dwight Yoakum, Ralph Stanley, Loretta Lynn, the Kentucky Headhunters and Cletus T. Judd, to make his latest record, Farm Fresh Onions. The singer says it's the best record he's ever made.

"(The record) is like, look, I just want to have as much fun as possible," says Keen, whose quirky sense of humor has permeated the work since his debut with No Kinda Dancer in '84.

Keen's sly sarcasm can be found in most of his tunes, but the mythical family he created in "Merry Christmas From The Family" from '94's Gringo Honeymoon became a cult classic thanks to heavy airplay by radio shock jocks John Boy and Billy. Keen has phased the song out of his act over the years, and has no immediate plans for a family reunion. "That was based on bits and pieces of my life and my family, and as all families do, they scatter to some degree," the singer said. "I have my own family that I worry about now, so I don't think in terms of those kinds of gatherings as much as I used to."

Critics have had a hard time deciding to which musical family Keen belongs. He's too smart for country, too funny for folk. Americana might work, but Keen has a few reservations about that label.

"Americana would be fine if it just had a little bit broader audience as far as people who actually knew what it was called," the singer said. "I understand. All my friends are quote unquote Americana. And I listen to it -- it's some of my favorite kind of music, and it spans the gamut from blues people to bluegrass people."

Since graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in English in the early 80s, Keen impressed many who took the time to listen to his literate, funny tunes. Steve Earle encouraged him to go to Nashville, but Keen's work didn't fit the slick pop image the town demanded. Moving back to Austin, he built a following song by song, becoming a major player with the debut of 1997's Picnic, featuring a cover photo of Keen's car ablaze at the "74 Willie Nelson picnic.

Keen's portrayal of the downtrodden and disenfranchised struck a chord with fans of all ages and cultural and economical persuasions. Although Keen has an uncanny ability to write strong character-driven songs, he has never considered writing novels. "I'm a terrible prose writer," the singer admits. "And besides, I have a huge respect for great novels and great novelists, and I would never insult them by pretending I could be in the same arena."

His fans wouldn't have it any other way. As long as Keen is content to write songs about those who deal with their problems as best they can and with a sense of humor, he doesn't need to worry about his audience going anywhere. "I planned to quit procrastinating," he sings on "So Sorry Blues" from the new album, "then decided I should wait." For a man who has as much fun at work as Robert Earl Keen, that's a good business plan.

Robert Earl Keen plays the Neighborhood Theatre Thursday @ 8pm. The Greencards open. Tickets are $25.

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