Not My Job: Singer Robert Earl Keen Gets Quizzed On Cats
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we like to treat people we like very rudely by asking them about things they know nothing about. So about six years ago we went down to Austin, Texas and we talked to singer and songwriter Robert Earl Keen who told us stories about how he made his living by engaging in sin, desperation and depravity, and then writing about it. He's out with a new album of bluegrass songs, which confuses us because we did not know you could do anything depraved with a banjo. Robert Earl Keen, welcome back to WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.
SAGAL: So we were - we sort of revisited some of your life stories and we found out some things that we didn't know about you the first time. For example, we found out that you - your younger sister helped you get into bars in high school?
ROBERT EARL KEEN: Yes she did. She was a foosball champion and...
SAGAL: I'm sorry, say that again. A foosball champion?
KEEN: Foosball. You remember foosball, don't you?
SAGAL: Yeah the table soccer with the...
KEEN: Yeah. Table soccer. Exactly.
SAGAL: ...Spinning poles. And she was - your older sister was a foosball champion in Houston?
KEEN: My younger sister.
SAGAL: Your younger sister.
KEEN: My younger sister was a foosball champion in Houston, Texas. And she'd say, you've got to come down here. You'll like it. And I didn't know what I was getting into. And we were both underage, so we both would sneak in. And as soon as they'd open the door, people would turn their heads and all the air would go out of the room. And they'd go oh there she is. Oh my God. It's, you know, Bjorn Borg of foosball.
SAGAL: Foosball. Really? So if I walked into some down and dirty Texas bar, the kind of place where the band plays behind a fence to keep them from being hurt...
SAGAL: ...There'd be young girls playing foosball? That's what you're telling me?
KEEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. But you might have to get a special, you know, password or something to get back there to see that.
SAGAL: I understand. That's the real hardcore stuff only for friends.
FAITH SALIE: Hey, Robert?
SALIE: Do you like - you've got like a three-part name.
SALIE: Do you like people to call you Robert Earl?
KEEN: A lot of people call me Robert Earl. I introduce myself as Robert Earl.
SALIE: You do?
SALIE: And did - were you born Robert Earl or did you throw in the Earl?
KEEN: I was. I'm actually a junior. My Dad was the first one and then - so I was Robert Earl Keen Jr., which I used to have that on my name as my stage name, but it got confusing. You know, I had too many people call me junior, and then I wanted to fight them.
SAGAL: As I was listening to your catalog, I came across this picture on your album cover "Picnic." And it's two cars and one of them, it seems, is on fire. And I found out that was not staged.
KEEN: No, no. I went to a Willie Nelson second picnic and my - I was there doing the Willie thing, you know, in the Willie way, as we all know.
SAGAL: The Willie thing.
KEEN: And I over did it and I took a nap in the afternoon. And I woke up to the emcees hollering out names and license plate numbers. And he said, and the next winner is RHP997.
KEEN: And I said, that's my car, man. And everybody around me who was, you know, they hardly any clothes on. They said wow, that's awesome. And they were clapping. And so I ran out there and there was my car. It was burnt to a crisp.
SAGAL: So what happened?
KEEN: What happened to the car or what happened to - how did I get home or what?
SAGAL: Oh, I...
SAGAL: Look, man. This sounds like it's the kind of story that could take the rest of the show, so it's yours.
KEEN: Somebody from the festival came to me and said, you know, the least we could do is let you meet Willie. So I said, OK, that's cool. So I went and met Willie and he said sorry about your car. And he says I got to go jam with Leon Russell. I'll see you next time.
SAGAL: And how did the car catch fire?
KEEN: There was a guy - there was - you know, he was in the Willie way as well. And he was out of the parking lot. And he was taking a nap in his car with the air conditioner on. And the exhaust caught the grass on fire, which then the wind blew it and it burned up 16 cars totally, it burned up.
CHARLIE PIERCE: Whoa, whoa, whoa. The exhaust caught the grass on fire? He was asleep and somebody knocked on his window and he just, you know, looked up in a panic and just shoved it in drive and just spilled an entire line of fire across this dry grass field.
PIERCE: What the hell kind of car is this?
SAGAL: That's awesome - this guy is like driving through the grass parking lot leaving a trail of flames.
PIERCE: With flames coming out of his tailpipe.
SAGAL: And so then - and the emcee is like - and these are all the cars that are burnt. And he's reading off license plates and everybody's going yay, 'cause it's a Willie Nelson concert.
SALIE: 'Cause it's the Willie way.
KEEN: You know, there was more love back then I think.
SAGAL: Yeah, people were happier.
KEEN: Yeah, people were really happy.
SALIE: Hey, Robert Earl? On your website it says that making this bluegrass album is like something you can cross off your bucket list. So I was wondering what else is on your bucket list?
KEEN: I want to make a record with Sade.
SAGAL: With Sade?
SALIE: Have you reached out to her about this?
KEEN: No, it's just - I am cosmically. It's out there. It's just out there...
SAGAL: The energy's out there.
SAGAL: Sade, really? Of all the people?
SALIE: What if you're on her bucket list? This is perfect.
KEEN: You know what, that would be just be a dream come true, wouldn't it?
SAGAL: Right. What if she's right now sleeping in her car listening to this radio program?
I was listening to your live album and I noticed that on some of your big songs like the Christmas song, Christmas from the family and the road, people sing every word along with you.
KEEN: They like singing with us. And that's, you know, people are always kind of curious about why people sing with us. And I don't really have an answer except for I kind of believe that everybody really in their heart believes that they can sing better than I can't. So they sit out there...
SAGAL: Yeah, like this song...
KEEN: ...And they just sing along hoping to drown me out maybe.
SAGAL: This song is so great it would be better if I could not hear him.
SAGAL: Well, Robert, it's always a great time talking to you, but this time we've asked you here to play a game that we're calling...
BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: We Have Found the Enemy and they are Adorable.
SAGAL: Now the last time you were on the show, as you may remember, you told this delightful story about how one day you woke up in your house there out in the country to find your wife standing in the doorway wearing only her underwear shooting at cats with a deer rifle.
SAGAL: That happened.
SAGAL: Now we broadcast that story and people were like how could she be so mean to the poor cats? So we want you to be able to defend your wife next time she goes feral. So we're going to ask you three questions about how cats are actually trying to kill us all.
SAGAL: Get two of these questions right and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their home answering machine. Bill, who is Robert Earl Keen playing for?
KURTIS: Jade Walker of Syracuse, N.Y.
SAGAL: All right. Here's your first question. Cats can control our behavior in very sneaky ways, such as A, driving off friends and family so it can have you to itself; B, infecting people with a parasite that makes them love the smell of cat pee; or C, hiding our car keys so we can never leave them.
KEEN: Wow. Those are so perfect. How would anyone know what the correct answer was? I would have to say A, driving off friends and family.
SAGAL: Right they do that by just scaring them and making them unhappy so they leave so they can have you all to itself?
KEEN: Well, I've had cats that did that, but they usually did that to me.
SAGAL: Right. They're driving you off because they presumably love somebody else.
KEEN: Yeah. And then the other two - the last one was what?
SAGAL: Hiding our car keys so we can't leave them.
KEEN: Oh my God. That's what's happened to my car keys all the time.
SAGAL: Yeah, the cat.
KEEN: OK, well I'm going to go with that one then.
SAGAL: I like your thinking but it was actually the other one you didn't consider.
KEEN: The middle one? The cat pee?
SAGAL: The middle one. The cat pee - that there is a parasite in cats that people believe can get into people and make them like the smell of cat pee, which might lead to, you know, cat lady syndrome, where people just accumulate all these cats 'cause they love them.
SAGAL: Isn't that creepy?
KEEN: Yes. I haven't had that cat yet.
SAGAL: All right. You still have two more chances here, Robert. Here's your next question. A new study that tracked cats during the day while they thought no one was watching them discovered they spend one-third of their time doing what? A, rearranging the litter box; B, wrecking or attempting to wreck all of your possessions; or C, killing or attempting to kill?
KEEN: Destroying my possessions and rearranging the - and killing or - boy I - OK, I go with kill. I would go with kill because, you know, you walk up to your house and all of a sudden there's some kind of dead bird right there in front of your - and you go, where did this? Oh I know what it is. It's Fluffy.
SAGAL: Right. You're exactly right. That's what they do.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: They are murderous murderers and don't you forget it.
SAGAL: Last question - cats who spend a lot of time cleaning themselves - you've all seen this - in many cases they clean themselves because A, they're paranoid schizophrenics and think they're with bugs; B, they're trying to get your stink off them; or C, they're such murderous predators they're seeing if they can eat themselves?
KEEN: Oh my God. Now I want that cat, that's the one that I want.
SAGAL: The cat that's trying to eat itself?
KEEN: Yeah, yeah. That would take out a lot - that would get rid of a lot of my problems.
KEEN: So I would - well, I'm going to have to go with number two.
SAGAL: They're trying to get your stink off them?
SAGAL: That's right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
PIERCE: There we go.
SAGAL: Next time you pet your cat, watch to see if it then licks itself clean because it can't stand you and it can't stand your smell. Bill, how did Robert Earl Keen do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Robert Earl is a cat person. He got two out of three. Congratulations.
SAGAL: Robert Earl Keen's new album is "Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions." Who knew? Robert Earl Keen, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.
KEEN: Thank you. Thank you, Peter. Bye bye everybody. Talk to you next time.
SAGAL: In just a minute, don't Bogart the limericks, man. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.