Winter Songs: Van Zandt's 'Snowin' On Raton'

All Things Considered host Melissa Block talks with musician Robert Earl Keen for our series Winter Songs, about "Snowin' on Raton," a Townes Van Zandt tune that reminds Keen of a time when things went spectacularly wrong, before going spectacularly right.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We end this hour with our latest winter song story. We've been hearing tales of winter inspired by music. And today, a story about everything going wrong, until it goes spectacularly right.

ROBERT EARL KEEN: My name is Robert Earl Keen, and I'm a singer-songwriter and entertainer. And my song that I want to talk about is called "Snowin' on Raton" by Townes Van Zandt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Well, when the wind don't blow in Amarillo, and the moon along the Gunnison don't rise, shall I cast my dreams upon your love, babe, and lie beneath the laughter of your eyes? Snowing on Raton.

BLOCK: Where is Raton, and what is Raton?

KEEN: Raton is in the northeastern part of New Mexico. It comes out of some real long miles and miles and miles and millions of acres of really flat plains or rolling plains, and then it starts to get mountainous right there at Raton and then - on then to Trinidad and then up into Colorado. So it's kind of the tail end of the Rocky Mountains, I guess.

BLOCK: And for folks who don't know much about Townes Van Zandt, aren't familiar with him or his songs, how do you describe him to people?

KEEN: I always describe him as the great poet among songwriters. If you take his lyrics, they look and feel and read like poetry. You don't necessarily always need the music, but he had a certain lilting quality to his voice that always made it even better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Well, you cannot turn the circles of the sun. Well, you cannot count the miles until you feel them, and you cannot hold a lover that is gone.

BLOCK: Robert, is there a story or a memory connected with this song for you?

KEEN: Absolutely. We were traveling from Colorado to Flagstaff, Arizona, and on the way, we drove through Raton. And it's about 550 miles, 600 miles to Flagstaff, and we got there late because we had some car trouble and all the things that are involved in those road stories. And when we got there, the manager of the venue was this lady and, for whatever reason, the promoter who was selling the tickets and doing his job, the two of them got in this huge argument.

And we thought, oh, my God, this is going to be bad. So then we still set up, and we had some sound problems. We were in an art center there in Flagstaff, had a huge glass front, and that was our backdrop for our stage. So it would look really good if you were in the audience. For us, it's kind of harder on the sound. And about every few minutes or so, we'd be playing, and there would be this giant eruption, and it would be the promoter fighting with the venue manager.

This guy would be yelling at this lady, and she was trying to hold her position, and he was yelling at her for unknown reasons. And we finally got to the end and finished, and everybody clapped and stuff. And right when we got finished, the cops pulled up and came in there and hauled the guy that was the promoter away. The venue manager felt like that everybody was still a little bit uneasy, and she said, would you mind playing another song just to kind of make this a little better?

And I was thinking, OK, I can play something. And I thought I know this Townes song, "Snowin' on Raton." Let's play this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Lie beneath...

And we were going along, kind of getting our footing and sounds pretty good, and we get to the chorus, (Singing) snowing on Raton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Snowing on Raton...

All of a sudden, right behind us, the snow just started coming down in giant, giant flakes, like you've never seen, like you only see on some kind of cartoon snowflakes. You could just put them in your hand almost, and the audience just literally gasped. And we thought, oh, we're really great. And then we realized it was the snow that was falling behind us. The song worked out pretty well too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Mother thinks the road is long and lonely. Little brother thinks the road is straight and fine. Little darling thinks the road is soft and lovely. I'm thankful that old road is a friend of mine.

BLOCK: Do you remember why you chose that song to go out on in the first place?

KEEN: I think it was because we've driven through Raton that day, and, you know, I'm known as a kind of a honky-tonk, loud, drinking, bar-band guy, whatever I am. Anyway, I like to end some shows with kind of a feeling of peace and goodwill, and that's a great song to end a show with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Snowing on Raton. Come morning, I'd be through them hills and gone.

BLOCK: Robert Earl Keen, thanks so much.

KEEN: Thank you, Melissa. I really appreciate it.

BLOCK: Robert Earl Keen with his choice of a winter song, "Snowin' on Raton," written by Townes Van Zandt. And we're collecting your winter song stories. Please write to us at npr.org. Just click on Contact Us at the bottom of the page and make sure the phrase winter song is in your subject line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWIN' ON RATON")

KEEN: (Singing) Snowing on Raton.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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