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Robert Earl Keen talks set lists, short songs and Southern food

Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen doesn’t remember much about playing to a full house at Music Farm Columbia last year, but he does remember “there were a lot of people there, and they were really happy.”

That’s the optimum result, the Americana legend said after a sound check in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week.

Keen will make a repeat appearance Wednesday, July 13, at the Music Farm.

The man behind popular songs “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Feeling Good Again” and “Merry Christmas from the Family” has been performing and making albums for more than three decades.

His most recent album, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions,” hit the No. 2 album spot on Billboard’s 2015 Bluegrass Albums chart. It was Keen’s first all-bluegrass album – one he said was a long time coming.

“I grew up with bluegrass music, and I’m a huge fan of it. When I first started playing the guitar, I learned how to play it behind all these fiddle tunes.”

Rather than write his own bluegrass songs, Keen covered the genre’s greats, such as the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and the Carter Family.

His original songs as of late are not bluegrass and not very long – he’s been fiddling with songs less than 2 minutes in length, tailored for the short attention spans of this generation, he said.

Before he plays at the Music Farm, Keen talked about his short songs, never-the-same set lists and favorite place to eat on the road.

Q: After “Happy Prisoner” do you see more bluegrass songs in your future?

A: Never say never, but I don’t see another bluegrass album happening. I love “Happy Prisoner.” I was very happy with how it came together. I just went out and did it, and I got to play with some of the best bluegrass musicians I know. There are some holdovers from it. I kept a fiddle player and a mandolin player, and they’ve added to my overall sound. We have a bigger and better sound than we’ve ever had.

Q: Can you talk more about the abbreviated songs you’ve been working on?

A: They’re short-attention-span songs for a short-attention-span culture. This is not to make any judgments, but in this current world we live in, nobody has time to sit down and listen to some 14-minute song. This is about getting your point across and moving on down the line. The goal is not to remember the song or the tune, but but to remember the idea.

Q: Will you play any of those in concert?

A: I might. It’s just something I mess around with. I do a different set every night. I play what people want to hear, and I bring in really, really old songs, too. That’s all in an effort to make sure people don’t feel like they’re hearing the same set from the last three nights.

Q: Is your set list different when you go somewhere Southern as opposed to another part of the country?

A: Possibly, but it’s more about the vibe. I’d say 95 percent of the time (it’s the vibe). I do a sound check the day of the show, and during that time, before anyone is in the room, I get this idea, “This place would be good for this song and this song.” Then I go back to the bus and work on the set list.

Q: Do you have a favorite Southern meal? Or something you love to eat while you’re on the road?

A: I love Mel’s Cafe in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s true Southern soul food. They serve collard greens and turnips, fried pork chops, okra gumbo. It’s fantastic. I really love that place. I never miss an opportunity to go there.

Related: 10 great bands that have played at Music Farm Columbia

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If you go

Robert Earl Keen

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 13

Where: Music Farm Columbia, 1022 Senate St.

Cost: $25-$28

Details: www.musicfarm.com

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