Robert Earl Reed:
The FTM Interview
By Jeremy Harris
In June of 2013, Robert Earl Reed spent nearly a month living with my family and I. During this time, he and my family all became very close as we shared stories, ate too much food and made frequent beer and whisky runs. Some of the best times we had did not involve music at all but just friends hanging out but we did find time to do an interview that I was going to hold onto until Robert had something big happen which we both thought would be his second album. Unfortunately, on October 5th, my wife received a phone call letting us know that Robert had passed. After several attempts to fight through the loss of my friend, I received the strength to sit down and listen to our interview and type it up to share. Goodbye friend...
FTM: I know you haven't been around it for a long time but how, in your opinion, has the music industry changed over the years?
RER: In my opinion? Well, obviously the internet has given a voice to anyone that has a connection. So whereas there used to be a lot of shade tree pickers that were never heard because they had to be on a label, now they can make their own music and practice their art through the miracle of what the internet is. So now they too can be heard and the whole dynamic has changed. The power is still with the record companies to a certain degree but a lot of it is more homogenous if that's the right word. Let's say it's more homegrown but look up homogenous before you type it.
FTM: I'll have to see how to spell it first.
RER: It's just accessibility for people to be heard. It's maybe not a wide audience but reaches worldwide. Then the other thing is that back then people paid for music and now people don't pay for music. As an independent act used to you'd make CD's to sell at your shows and that was the way you'd get your music distributed but now one of your buddies buys the cd and rips it for all the other ones. There's not a lot of money in the music business anymore for the artist.
FTM: You hear a lot of people talk about Texas music and I know you love it and some of your music fits the mold of Austin so what is the difference in Texas music and the music that comes from the other 49 states?
RER: Wow, that's a good question. Being as that the number of great songwriters that come out of Texas and what they pose as red dirt music.... (silence filled with sighs) To me Texas music is more of a thinking man's music than a lot of the music that comes from the rest of the United States and some of it, like Tom Russell draws from the Hispanic side of the music and then when you hear it you know you're hearing Texas music. You hear Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gurf Morlix or James McMurthy it all has a certain vibe to it that is not repeatable from other parts of the country and it's also indigenous from where they come from. You're gonna hear more blues influenced stuff coming from Mississippi and up into St. Louis and even deeper now and you're gonna hear more folk music up in Appalachia. It all just has its own vibe buy Austin is quickly coming the place for people like myself because Nashville is so just what it is and just completely overrun by the corporate crap. Really to get an audience to listen to you, you have to go somewhere like Austin because they have a lot of musically educated ears and they just hear something different.
FTM: So with all that in mind, how have you been influenced by the Texas sound?
RER: When I heard Gurf Morlix's song "Madeline's Bones" I knew those guys could just write. A lot of my song are dark ballads of just dark but guys like Gurf, and others they just have a certain groove they're able to put on it so while conveying a darkness of a song. Going back to "Madeline's Bones", there's a marimba in it but it's about a woman that was the leader of the United States atheist association and her and her son and granddaughter disappeared and for so long everyone though they had just absconded with the organizations money until they found the corpses of them. So by listening to them from a writing perspective especially I felt like I could approach subjects that were dark and didn't necessarily be about namedropping and getting drunk and all the other simplistic ideas behind a song and attack more complicated issues or messages in a song.
FTM: How long has it been since you've played a mandolin?
RER: Hmmm, probably about 4 months.
FTM: What kind of football season do you think Texas A&M will have this season?
RER: Probably an awesome one. They're an incredible addition to the SEC but I'm an Arkansas fan and I think teams like Missouri should move into one of those lesser conferences. (This was followed by an apology to members of the band Powder Mill)
FTM: Alright, so now that I'm done asking you all the questions I hope to one day ask Robert Earl Keen I'll get to the ones that are really for you. He's of course way too big to talk to us.
RER: Ah man, that hurts.
FTM: How long before we can expect to get a new Robert Earl Reed album?
RER: Well this is about the third interview I've given in the last year and I keep adding time to it. I've got probably 40 demos and the first one was all self financed but I'm not in a position to do that anymore. I do have some things on the line to help me finance this one and this won't cost nearly as much and I'm very excited about it. I'd say if things go right that I'll get it out before the end of the year. I've actually got a Christmas album that I've been writing that might come out before a regular album. It has a bunch of bent Christmas songs on it.
FTM: What is the moldiest part of your body?
RER: The moldiest part of my body would definitely have to be my mind. I can't remember shit, I need frequent naps and it's pretty enclosed because I stay alone a lot and it's just not open to the air. I'm sure there's some mold stuck up there.
FTM: What about being a street performer? Could you make money at that?
RER: With my clothes on or off?
FTM: Well shit, I'll just ask the next question. What percentage of that income would be considered prostitution?
RER: (laughs) Well first off, we're all prostitutes in some form of fashion. Second, if the naked cowboy can make a living, I can be the naked cowboy that they'd pay to put clothes back on. I'd probably make more money getting paid to put them on than busking. That's what they call it, busking or sitting on the sidewalk and playing. That is a fun thing to do especially if there's two of you and you can just jam out. I just played a thing recently at a local farmer's market and it was a lot of fun. They were feeding us lemonade with whisky and by the time we left we had this huge thing of organically grown vegetables. I'm all for bartering. It was almost more fun than going somewhere and getting paid. We did't even know what we were gonna get and these people just kept bringing these little gifts and stuff. The one good thing I do know is that I can eek a meal out each day with my music. There's an answer for you. It could be worse I could be in someones kitchen cleaning out an old bean pot and cooking them a dinner like now. (Yes that's right, this entire interview took place in my kitchen while Robert was preparing gumbo for my family and I)
FTM: What has it been like to get to work with Jimbo Mathus?
RER: Jimbo is the Svengali, Jimbo is the catfish king. There's something magic about Jimbo in his personality, the way he carries himself and relates to people, in his myriad of musical styles and I've been really blessed to be one of the few people that he collaborates with. I've written a song on one album and on the next one I have a couple to be in the running to be on that album. I played in Jimbo's Mosquitoville band on the tenor banjo and just being able as an artist, especially since I didn't start until I was 40, getting a fast track lesson from someone like Jimbo has been great. He's the one that really instilled in me that it doesn't have to be note perfect and if you wanna play music you got to get your ass out and play. When I first started playing I had envisioned like everyone does, music is so much fun and this is going to be great and it was for about a week and then I went out on a couple of little tours with Jimbo and it was just turn and burn. I was thinking musicians get to go out to the party after and all the girls just hang around and you just drink and everything but no. You get done and you break down, get back into the van and head out and hope the damn thing doesn't break down and then you go do it the next night and the next and the next.
FTM: And forget where you are.
RER: Yeah, and forget where you are. To me Jimbo is the ghost of Jimmy Rodgers, the guy is a latin major, he makes marionettes and the marionettes are how he got into performing. He grew up in Mississippi and played in family bands and plays every stringed instrument and the trombone. He and I have a certain synergy together, our minds are on the same wavelength. We can be discussing something and the same thing will just come out of our mouths at the same time. It'll be some warped and crazy ass idea but it's funny how it'll come out. Him loving the delta and Mississippi so much and all the things he takes me to see on our delta jungle odysseys as we call them it's just cool.
FTM: What drugs have influenced you to put all those weird noises in some of your songs?
RER: I think the drug endorphin, which is a natural drug that your body and mind produces when you are being rewarded or something. If you listen to songs sometimes the unexpected sounds give you a high that you want to hear again. Instead of the same ole same ole that people have heard before because a lot of music is the same with new lyrics. When you get into the arrangement part of it like in "Carlene" there's a sweeping floor sound because they were sweeping the floor in the studio and there's a mule's jaw that we had there but I'd be lying if I didn't say marijuana didn't have a little something to do with it on occasion. But really we just get going and somebody will say let's just try this, it'll be really cool. I did a little music thing for a movie and they had this little organ that you had to pump and it was a real creepy carnival type thing so we put that in there and it's like creating on the fly since it doesn't have to be note perfect. If we're not cutting it as a band then it's drums, guitar and then me singing all at once and then we just layer the stuff in after. It's like painting with sound. So when I said the endorphins it's like a good song, it builds you up and builds you up and boom, it rewards your mind and then it pulls back and then builds you up and then boom, it rewards your mind. That way you'll want to hear it again.
FTM: So after we are done do I need to add some doors slamming and cats meowing to get your endorsement for this interview?
RER: Absolutely, I can guarantee the first time you hear a cat scream or Pines (my oldest son's 100 pound american bulldog and saint bernard mix. We call him an american bullnard for short.) holler after I've just unmounted him people will wonder what that is and it'll keep their ear.
FTM: What brand of guitar do you play?
RER: I normally play a Taylor and I have a Martin that I like to play but my favorite that I own, the one that if the house ever burns I'll leave my Taylor, Martin and my Guild and grab my little Silvertone guitar because I write most of my songs with it. It rides around in the truck with me and whenever I'm bored, have some time or an idea just comes I'll turn on the recorder on my phone and just grab the Silvertone and play a little bit.
FTM: How many different guitars have you owned over the years?
RER: Hahaha, that's funny. When I first started got into music I bought a shitload of guitars then I'd meet people and get drunk and start liking them and give them my guitar. I had a few of those but now that I'm broke and I know I don't have as many guitars...
FTM: I think I saw my boy carrying one of those guitars around yesterday.
RER: That was more of a pay it forward. It was one I had used for my son and it was time for it to go on. I don't like selling pay it forward stuff, it's better to give it to kids but all the others were just ignorance. I'd wake up the next morning and be like what the fuck did I do. (starts making crying noises) Why didn't somebody tell me not to do that?
FTM: If you had a guitar at that moment you could've written a great song about how you gave your guitar away.
RER: Oh man. Well yeah but now I've got a dulcimer and I love any stringed instrument. I took violin lessons when I was a kid but I still can't play a fiddle but I like stringed instruments a lot. I love the mandolin and a friend of mine even though I haven't met him yet made me a reso bow (I'm about 1% sure that is the correct spelling) and it's one of a kind mad by John Paul Cook who is a luthier out of Fayetteville and makes unbelievable guitars and ukuleles of all different varieties and woods. They're all resonator designs and he started talking to me about this time last year and I had just saw Luther of The North Mississippi Allstars do the "Shake em on Down" video where they were playing a diddley bow which comes from the olden days on the delta where people would hook a string to their shack and run a block up underneath it and stand on the other end to keep it tight then they'd take something and pluck it and run it up and down it. That's where the first diddley bow came from by my understanding then they started putting them on sticks with cans. I asked him if he (John Paul Cook) had ever thought of a diddley bow with a resonator on it and he hadn't so he made this thing he called the luna and it looks a banjo but it's a three stringed diddley bow that has a resonator cone and a pickup. It has a real unique sound when you plug it in and I'm in the process of learning to play it.
FTM: If you were about to go through a traumatic and possibly life altering event, what would be the one thing you'd have to do just before that experience?
RER: Well you know that's a loaded question since you already know the answer. (He now pauses to put some frozen meat in the microwave to thaw) And since you already know the question to what may or may not have happened I'll come up with a way to artfully answer this. (pauses for a few seconds to think) I would plumb my mind for a great release. Yeah, that's what I would do.
FTM: What's the worst thing you have ever found in a hotel while on the road?
RER: Well, thanks to when I first met you and a conversation we were having while I was staying in a cheap motel and either you or Amy (my wife) told me not to plug in a black light so I haven't found anything because I won't look. It does run through my mind when I check into these places now about the black light and I just go ahead and pull all the bedspreads off and I bring my own pillows, which are probably dirtier than the ones they have on there.
FTM: But it's your dirt.
FTM: What's the worst thing that the cleaning lady may have found that you left behind?
RER: (looks away while smiling and giggling)
FTM: Oh good, there's an answer for this one.
RER: Well, hmm. There's a couple of things that come to mind but I don't really know that I want to put them out there. I can tell you off the record and then if people buy you or Trailer a drink if they see you at a show you can tell them about this and the real answer about the life changing event. Let me think about the worst thing on the record for a second.
FTM: There's no artful way of answering this one?
RER: Well, back when I was younger I was staying in the Tampa, Florida area and let's just say I had a girlfriend and she left one day before I did and left a sex toy there. I thought it would be funny to put it in the freezer and since there's a lot of elderly people that stay at this hotel I was thinking when they clean certainly they won't look in the freezer so one day the front desk phone will be ringing off the hook. That's one of the worse things I've left in a hotel.
FTM: On a scale of 9-10, how would you rate this interview?
RER: Oh, I'd give it a 10. It's definitely the most interesting one I've ever been asked to do.
FTM: On a scale of 1-2, how would you rate your career?
RER: Can I use a decimal point?
FTM: Uh, sure.
RER: I give myself about a 1.9999. I've accomplished so much in a short time and it's given me something tangible to live for. Not that 48 is old but when your kids grow up and start moving away you start looking around and saying what the fuck am I gonna do with the rest of my life? At least I now know that I have something that'll be around. Songs constantly come to me and some are good and some are not so good but they're always coming. I get tickled when I unlock one and play it for the first time and it becomes my new favorite song for a few days until I play it for some people and they ignore me. Then I shelf it and write another one.
FTM: If I wanted to introduce someone to the music of Robert Earl Reed, what song should I play?
RER: I'll answer this in two way. I don't set out to write a song that doesn't have some meaning to me. Like "Lazy Earl" is more of a folk thing and it's for an album I'm gonna call "7 deadly sins" and I'll have one song for each sin and that's the sloth one but if you wanna introduce someone to my music I think "Road to Hattiesburg" has been everyone's favorite and it kind of stands on its own because it's different. It was really interesting, we got in a studio that night and went to the bar down the street and found a guy that played slide guitar and pulled him in and it was all creation on the fly. And people always talk about the drums on that song, it's because the engineer that night had these overlay ideas of just hitting a bass drum and then having the cymbals wash in so that would be a good way to introduce them. If someone really wanted to see the real me the song "Reaper" which was one of the first songs I ever wrote. To a great degree it is who I am and to a great degree where I am. I fight chronic depression and when I'm on I'm on but when I'm off I'm off and you know that's just a fact of life. To me if you can't look at the underbelly of life, how do you know anything else is beautiful?
FTM: Has there ever been a song that you were a part of that you regretted and wish it had never been released?
RER: No, not yet. How about "Honky-tonk Badonkadonk"? Or wait, what's that new song I hate so bad?
FTM: How could you choose just one?
RER: "Buzz Kill". I wouldn't mind killing whoever's buzz wrote that song. Of course they're probably sitting around drinking champagne while I'm drinking PBR and cooking you some gumbo. They're out partying it up with Colt Ford somewhere and laughing at everyone else.
FTM: Is it hard for you to be a creepy old man or does it just come natural?
RER: I didn't know I was quite that creepy and on the river yesterday they were hollering Duck Dynasty at both of us if you remember correctly but I think they had me confused with Uncle Si.
FTM: David Allan Coe was the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, Willie Nelson is the Redheaded Stranger and Hank Sr was Luke the Drifter so is there any chance you'll go by The Croc Footed Country Singer?
RER: Nope, Nope, Nope. Just call me The Shade-tree Clergyman.
FTM: This isn't an interview question but something stinks. Did you fart?
RER: No but it could be the wind kicking the breath back into your face.
FTM: I normally like to ask some fan questions at the end of my interviews.
RER: Oh ok.
FTM: Sorry but I asked everyone I know and none of them know who you are.
RER: They didn't even have any questions for Robert Earl Keen?
FTM: Yes they did but I already asked them so I guess that's it.
Note: This interview is mostly unedited.