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EarleFest, a day of Americana music to benefit the Earle Baum Center for people with sight loss, started out as an enjoyable way to support this worthy organization and spend a weekend afternoon.

Now in its sixth year, EarleFest has become a showcase for some of the best roots music this side of San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

And unlike that free concert in Golden Gate Park, EarleFest isn't huge, attracting about 1,200 people last year on the center's spacious lawn. So on Saturday, you can get up close to the stars, including Robert Earl Keen and Ray Wylie Hubbard.

"The spirit and energy of the event are exceptional — we get more renowned entertainers every year," said Earle Baum CEO Allan Brenner. "We always include at least one local band, often it's a lesser-known band, and give them the opportunity to perform with some of the great artists in the business."

This year, that band is Frankie Boots and the County Line; they'll kick off the main stage show at noon.

"I'm honored to be part of it," Boots said. "It's a great event for a good cause in an intimate setting."

Between the main acts, other musicians will play on a smaller stage sponsored by the HopMonk Tavern. Lagunitas is donating beer and Rodney Strong is contributing wine for sale with all proceeds going to the center.

The event has two goals: First, to raise some money, "but we don't make much," Brenner said, and second, to heighten the profile of the center.

Founded in 1999 and located between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, the center assists up to 1,500 sight-impaired people a year. Named for blind farmer Earle Baum, it focuses on independent living skills, mobility and adaptive technology.

Keen, the headliner, is known for his storytelling and up-tempo songs. In a phone interview this month, Keen, 57, spoke about how he packs so much story into his songs and how he feels about the road after touring for more than three decades.

<b>Did you imagine you'd still be on the road 25 years after writing "The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends"?</b>

Never, ever. It never even crossed my mind. People don't even shout out that one for me to play because they know I'll play it. On the few occasions that I have decided not to play it, people have been incredulous. I am connected to that song, body and soul.

<b>How do you approach songwriting?</b>

Music is the engine that keeps it rolling, and the words are the landscape that you're seeing through the windshield as you're cruising down the road. So I like to make sure that all the images are really, really strong, and anything that's transitional, I'll drop it. In fiction, you can disguise the truth with all sorts of lies and fantasies ... You can lie all you want.

<b>You seem to play often in Northern California. What do you like about it?</b>

Everything! I love everything about Northern California. I would move there if I wasn't so rooted in Texas, and when I get frustrated with what's going on with (my) state politically or weatherwise, I think, I'm moving to Northern California. I particularly love the water, even though it's really cold. I love the fact that you can walk around in a sweater all year long. And people seem to be kind of smart there. I love that.

<b>You and your bandmates have played together a long time. How does that affect the music you create?</b>

The guitar player and the bass player and I have been together for 20 years, the drummer 15 or 16 years, and the steel player 12 years, so we've been together for a long, long time. It's amazing. We just kind of speak in code (musically); we can shift gears on stage really easily.

<b>How has your touring life changed over the years?</b>

I don't play as many honky-tonk bars. I like to play places that make sense, like this fundraiser (EarleFest). I like to go places that make a difference.

<i>Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Contact him at michaelshapiro@pressdemocrat.com or visit his site: www.michaelshapiro.net.</i>