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In search of 'The Five Pound Bass'

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — I'd been bass fishing for most of my life, but in the fall of 2004 it was taking me places I'd never dreamed of.

I'd just signed on to do a bass fishing show for ESPN. I'd be traveling the country, following pro tournaments and spending more time fishing than a rational adult should expect to spend fishing without also expecting unemployment.

It was in this personal and professional context that a friend introduced me to Robert Earl Keen, by way of the Texas music man's 2003 album "The Party Never Ends."

The first track was "The Five Pound Bass." And it hooked me from the opening verse:

    Up this morning
    Before the sun
    Fixed me some coffee and a honey bun
    Jumped in my pickup
    Gave her the gas
    I'm goin' out to catch a five pound bass

I stole my friend's CD and played it over and over, learning the lyrics in short order. In a few days I had committed to memory the words to several other songs, becoming a Robert Earl Keen fan almost overnight.

It was a strange place: Not being what you'd call a country music fan, at least not "new" country, I had stumbled closer to the genre than I'd been since a beer-fueled, youthful flirtation with Hank Jr.

Keen's music struck a different chord, though. It was at turns literate and raucous; one minute I was stomping and laughing in a smoky honky tonk, the next I was cruising effortlessly down a dusty farm-to-market road that might lead to nowhere or the truth.

The music was reflective and sincere without getting mired in sentimental despair. From a writer's perspective, Keen's storytelling skill kindles envy:

    Down by the lake side
    Just off the ramp
    All them people sleeping in their fishing camps
    Some out in the pup tents
    Some out on the grass
    They all be dreamin' about the five pound bass

Keen's repertoire was rich in its diversity, but I kept coming back to "The Five Pound Bass."

As a fan of music, fishing and a well-spun yarn, I had to know what it was all about. I had questions which could only be answered by one man.

I arranged an interview with Keen in Little Rock, Ark., the place I call home and the site of a Keen show at Riverfest, an outdoor music and entertainment fair on the banks of the Arkansas River. Barring injury or illness, nothing could go wrong.

So imagine my surprise when, a week before the interview, I read a 2005 question-and-answer feature in which Keen said he "had a hard time" playing "The Five Pound Bass."

It appeared the "five pound bass" had just slipped the hook.

    The early birdie always gets his worm
    Me I always get my wish
    When you're talking 'bout that five-pound bass, son
    The early wormy gets the fish

I arrive at Little Rock's Riverfront Park an hour early and slip down to a beer tent to buy a $4 can of liquid courage. Being a little cynical after reading about Keen's disdain for the song that's the subject of my story, I needed to settle the nerves.
Two beers later, I made my way to Keen's tour bus, parked behind a stage beneath the Broadway Bridge. The cool interior of the bus was a welcome relief to the oppressive heat and humidity of a late May afternoon in Arkansas.

Keen greets me at the front of the bus, looking every bit a character out of one of his songs. Wearing a blue polo shirt emblazoned with a small, red and white "T" (a Texas Rangers logo, I presume), a pair of loose khaki shorts and comfortably worn-in boots. He doesn't come across much different than the sundry eccentrics who populate the peculiar slice of Texas that is Keen's milieu.

Keen drops a big cowboy hat on the seat beside him as he settles into the corner of a couch that wraps around the back section of the bus. I take a seat on the opposite side as Keen kicks up his leg on the couch and pulls from his pocket a can of Copenhagen snuff.

I have to get something off my chest and, breaking a cardinal rule of interviewing which dictates beginning with a few warm-up questions, I instead start by asking about the 2005 interview ... and what exactly Keen meant when he said he "had a hard time" playing "The Five Pound Bass."

In other words, what the hell, dude?

It turns out Keen doesn't dislike the song as much as he has an aversion to people yelling for it at inopportune junctures during his shows, much like the age-old irritant — "Play 'Freebird!'" — that has pissed off many a band.

"I get a lot of requests for it," Keen said. "So I've got one kind of vibe going, and then I'll have some guy who just won't stop hollering. What I'm saying there is: I love the song. I have a fun time playing it. It's just it fits some places ... and some times it doesn't fit.

"The main thing that I do try to do, and this is kind of a double-edged sword, I always change the set every night. So I try to hit the high spots, try to hit a lot of songs a lot of people like. But what I'm always playing to is that person that might've seen us two weeks ago — and doesn't want to see exactly the same show. So if I've played it two or three times in a row, I might not play it. And then I'll have some guy who just won't stop hollering."

I've been that guy. It was at a show in Little Rock two years ago, when the Bassmaster Legends came to town for a tournament on the same stretch of Arkansas River that Keen now looks on through the tinted window of his bus.
Along with Bassmaster pro Kelly Jordon, who takes the stage at Bassmaster events to the tune of "The Five Pound Bass," we must've yelled out for it a hundred times. It seemed so blatantly appropriate under the circumstances.

    Jumped in my john boat
    I stow my gear
    I fire her up and when I am in the clear
    I sail across that water
    As smooth as glass
    Ready here I come, you five pound bass

If Keen doesn't necessarily enjoy the ill-timed bawling of fans, at least he somewhat understands it: His repertoire includes several sing-along crowd favorites which elicit the same kind of behavior.

But his music is more than just the raucous barroom sing-alongs — Keen is a real-live Texas troubadour and raconteur of the highest order, evoking a gamut of emotions by staying true to his unique perspective.

Though it's one of his light-hearted songs, "The Five Pound Bass" is a fitting example of how Keen's experience shapes his music.

Keen's music career arguably started on the front porch of his rent house in College Station, Texas, where he and longtime friend Lyle Lovett played music in between gigs at local taverns. After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in English literature, Keen moved to Austin and began his musical career in earnest, financing his first album, "No Kinda Dancer," out of his own pocket in 1984.

Keen has lived in various parts of the Texas Hill Country for the better part of three decades, finding inspiration in the landscapes and the region's characters. In the lakes and streams on the fringes of Austin, he found the inspiration for "The Five Pound Bass."

It started when Keen and a friend lived together in Austin, dreaming about becoming boat owners so they could run around south Texas chasing fish.

"We'd always talk about seeing if we could get enough money to buy a bass boat," Keen said. "He had this whole pipe dream about having a big truck and a bass boat, and I was just even trying to find a john boat with a decent engine.

"What we ended up doing was borrowing other people's s--t. But this guy was a really good fisherman. And I was OK."

They went fishing on the Fayetteville (Texas) Power Project Reservoir, Lake Travis, Lake Austin and "a lot of little creeks and rivers around the area." They made a couple of trips to Lake Amistad, a productive bass fishery on the Texas-Mexico border that's been a regular stop on the Bassmaster Tour for the past three years.

From Keen's expectations as an angler, a song was born.

"We just always thought that 'The Five Pound Bass' was sort of, you know, the thing you had to be able to do," Keen said. "You had to be able to do that to even consider yourself a fisherman at all. That was the benchmark."

But the song has a meaning beyond its piscatorial surface.

"So then it became a metaphor for anything that was exciting in your life," Keen said. "Like, you know, you get a date with some really good-looking girl, and you go, 'Hey, that's a five-pound bass.' It was an inside joke. It'd be like high-fiving or something. It was just our code for, 'That's really happening.' A big thumbs-up."

    I find a perfect spot
    Some old dead trees
    Back in a canyon where you can't feel no breeze
    I tie my lure
    I make my cast
    It's breakfast time you five pound bass

Whether you look at "The Five Pound Bass" in a literal or figurative sense, it's clear that Keen knows fishing and the outdoors. Sitting on the tour bus before the Little Rock show, Keen fixates on the muddy waters of the Arkansas River.
He seems to relax and open up when the subject turns to hunting and fishing, and even though Keen strikes me as someone who's rarely at a loss for words, the tenor of conservation brightens, his stories punctuated by animated speech.

He's effervescent while telling a story about one of his most recent fishing trips, an impromptu outing with Bassmaster pro Kevin Wirth on Texas' Lake Fork: Keen was booked to play a concert after the final weigh-in of the Toyota Texas Bass Classic in early May. He and his crew had to be on-site early on a Sunday morning to set up for the gig, leaving several idle hours.

"I just said, you know, maybe while we're here ... is there any way I can go fishing?" Keen said. "And so somebody dug around, and they said, 'Yeah, look ... if whoever's eliminated [from the tournament], if they're still staying there, we'll see if somebody wants to take you fishing.

"So this guy shows up and he says, 'Hey, I'm Kevin. I'm gonna take you fishin'. I'd had about two hours of sleep. He looked like he'd had about two hours of sleep. I'm thinkin' we're gonna go out there for like a couple of hours. And we're out there until right before I'm goin' on stage.

"He was a trip. I'd never gone with somebody who was a real Bassmaster and really knew what they were doing. It was exciting. He's just fishin', fishin', fishin'. God dang! This dude is the Captain Ahab of Bassmasters. He was unbelievable. I had a great time. I said, 'Man, you're the workin'-est sonofabitch I've ever been with.' "

Wirth said Keen wasn't bad, either.

"His best five fish went about 25 pounds," Wirth said. "He was a better fisherman than anybody I'd had on my boat in a while. He wanted to stay out there."

Keen says his passion goes back to his childhood, when he and longtime friend Bryan Duckworth, who'd later play fiddle in Keen's band, spent countless days wading streams in search of whatever was biting.

"When I was a kid, my friend Duckworth and I would just get on a creek and we'd just walk for miles, you know, up and down the creek," Keen said. "And we'd catch anything — everything from a sun perch to a channel cat to bass. And have a stringer. Just kinda that Huck Finn thing, almost. That's sort of at the heart of it all — just catching fish."

    That old sun is rising
    That water is clear
    I watch my lure as it's flying through the air
    I see a ripple
    I hear a splash
    Lord have mercy, it's a five pound bass

Keen is in a comfort zone, talking about fishing with his father-in-law Preston Gray; dove hunting around Hondo, Texas; bowhunting for whitetails on his place south of Kerrville, Texas; quail hunting in south Texas; duck hunting in Stuttgart, Ark.

He's especially fond of saltwater fishing for redfish and speckled trout on the Gulf Coast out of Port O'Connor, Texas.

"I like the coast," Keen said. "You can almost always catch something on the coast, regardless of what the weather conditions are."

Soon we're talking about our favorite places to hunt and fish, with Keen picking up on my Arkansas roots and telling me about childhood trips to fish for rainbow trout in northern Arkansas.

Keen laments the fact that he doesn't get to hunt and fish as much as he once did or as much as he'd like. But with a grueling tour schedule that can mean as many as 200 days a year on the road, it's hard to find the time.

"I get a lot of offers to go fishing; I get offers to go hunting all the time," he said. "Jesus, here's what's gonna happen: My career will stop someday, and then I won't have any offers to go. I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Our conversation wanders into new territory as the show approaches. We talk about storytelling, truth in fiction, an alley behind a nightclub we both know in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

I'm shocked when he offers advice on how I should train my five-month-old lab puppy.

And it all started with a question regarding a song about bass fishing.

Once again, bass fishing is taking me places I'd never dreamed of.

And that's ... "The Five Pound Bass."