A conversation with country-folk-rocker Robert Earl Keen is easy and enjoyable. He'll "go on forever" about many topics, including his music, how he lobbies Congress on behalf of musicians, and his friends Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely. But he was especially animated this day talking about children and classical music in his home state of Texas.
"Man I love classical music," said Keen. "It's always sounded good to me, I loved it since I was a little kid even though I can't play it or read a lick of music."
He got especially animated recalling his then six year old daughter's introduction to the violin and when she joined the "Hill Country East Orchestra" in Kerrville, Texas, a town of 22,000+ 60 miles northwest of San Antonio. It's where the Houston native now calls home.
"When I started with them (the orchestra) ten years ago, they had like 80 kids," said Keen. "Now they have 140 kids that play the violin, the viola, the cello, or the bass. They start when they're about six years old, but any kid can sign up and they'll start teaching them to play right away.
He marveled that the orchestra is free, unlike most, if not all other youth orchestras scattered across the country.
"Any kid can walk up on a Monday evening and sign up to learn how to play and read music," said Keen. "They also learn how to play in a symphony situation, and they get to do this year round, year after year. In the 10 years I've been with them, I've watched kids who you thought had no musical talent whatsoever ... they'd just be barely scratching out 'Twinkle twinkle' in the Suzuki method, and when they get to be 13 or 14, all of a sudden 'Boom,' they explode like some kind of supernova. All of a sudden they know how to play."
Keen said listening to the kids play the classical music he can't read or play is special to him, as is watching the kids grow musically over the years. But the connection is deeper, as he contributes to the school through yearly benefit performances.
"They take all the gate, I just play," said Keen. "That was my deal from the get-go. We made $74,000 this year and up over $700,000 in 10 years. And not only that, we've spread out into the Kerrville public school district where we do a thing a month before called 'What Does Music Look Like?' in all the art classes."
He said all the public school create paintings and drawings of what music looks like to them. He said it culminates with a pizza party with prizes including guitars.
"It's spread out into the independent schools, so people even here in this town, they don't all know about 'Hill Country Youth Orchestra,' but because we've spread out into the schools, the awareness is real high," said Keen.
Robert Earl Keen (with opening act Chicago Farmer) plays The Castle Theater in Bloomington June 15. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. Music starts at 8:00 p.m.
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