Robert Earl Keen: A Life Made Of Songs

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

April 1, 1987.

That was the watershed, the day Robert Earl Keen truly became Robert Earl Keen.

Not that the English major from Texas A&M wasn’t always the literary blade who could stack images, weave details or conjure a masculinity you can smell from the second chord. But on April 1, 1987, even with some possibilities percolating, the Houston-born and -raised songwriter put himself on the highway home and out of Nashville – and he never looked back.

At the urging of Steve Earle, who was on the verge of his debut Guitar Town and a Waylon Jennings hit in “The Devil’s Right Hand,” Keen had moved to Music City in 1985, expatriating himself to Nashville to stake his claim. But on that April Fool’s Day, Keen finished packing up the loose ends of that chapter and drove straight into the beginning of a career that defies schools, categories or musical moments.

“I’d played a show in Lawrence, Kansas, and made $670,” he remembers of the beginning of the end. “The car broke down on the way home, a timing chain issue. It cost $670 to fix. It was wintertime. Someone had broken into our house (in Nashville) and we didn’t have a lot: a bed, a couch, a couple pieces of furniture, a stereo … I grew up on a corner in Houston, where the house was broken into 16 times, but this was different.

“So, I got home. When I woke up, it was 2 degrees, and I’d never really seen that kind of cold before. I looked at Kathleen, said, ‘You wanna move back?’ She said, ‘I’m already packed.’ I came back to close up a few weeks later, deal with the lease, but that was that.”

It sure was. 

Without that break-in, Keen might not be one of the most singular Texas voices ever. 

Heading home, Music Row factory town in the rearview mirror, the always heroic – even when the hero was an antihero – writer was freed from the conveyor-belt writing cycles and song structures built around hit formulas.

“When Robert went to Nashville,” remembers Lyle Lovett, a friend from before either was dreaming singer/songwriter dreams, “he committed to doing things the Nashville way. He’s with BMI, and he is a part of the music business. But the first song he wrote when he moved back was ‘Mariano.’ When he looked out the window, exhaled and went, ‘I’m home,’ that’s what came out.”

With strong hints of Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Tom McGuane, even John Steinbeck or Tennessee Williams, Keen could build songs that had vistas, small tactile details, wild nights of specificity and emotions riddled with conflict. There’s nothing simple to Keen’s work, but it is ultimately, utterly true.

“I wrote ‘Mariano’ about someone I knew,” Keen says. “It said everything I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it. It’s colorful. It’s honest. I never have to flinch if someone wants to hear it.”

It could be a cousin of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” The yearning for more, the sacrifices to make a better life for those back home. As timely now as ever, it’s master story painting that is as compelling as it is entertaining – and why his work endures.

Yet the man who’s released 19 albums, toured millions of miles, provided hits for icons George Strait, The Chicks and the Highwaymen’s Mount Rushmore of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and inspiration for waves of Red Dirt musicos from Pat Green, Wade Bowen, Cory Morrow and Jack Ingram to Cross Canadian Ragweed, the Randy Rogers Band and Eli Young Band is pretty straightforward. Do good work you can stand behind, push what you’ve done before and honor the things that cross your songs – whether that’s the dysfunctional holiday hilarity of “Merry Christmas from the Family,” the cross-cultural wonderings of an American pondering the immigrant who works for him of “Mariano” or the deep sweetness of “No Kinda Dancer.”

Just as impressively, Record of the Year Grammy winner Shawn Colvin chose “Not A Drop of Rain” to set alongside songs from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, John Fogerty and Paul Simon on her Uncovered; his “Go On Downtown” is the only cover on Gillian Welch’s Boots No. 1: Official Revival Bootleg and “Feelin’ Good Again” opens the critically-acclaimed The Watkins Family Hour debut from Nickle Creek sibs Sara and Sean Watkins.

In 2015, Broadcast Music Inc. created the Troubadour Award – since given to John Prine and John Hiatt – to honor Robert Earl Keen. Inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside his best friend Lovett and the late Townes Van Zant, he was also given the Rick Smith “Spirit of Texas Award” when he was made a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
That’s a long way from a rundown shotgun farmhouse’s front porch on Church Street within walking distance of Texas A&M. It was also a really long way to the Basement Coffeehouse on the A&M campus, the weekly folk hoot that journalism major Lovett was booking.

“I used to park my car by that house, take my bicycle and ride to campus, and there were always people on the porch, playing,” Lovett remembers. It was there the introspective Large Band leader got turned onto the bluegrass of Flatt & Scruggs, the Monroe Brothers, New Grass Revival, Norman Blake’s “Whiskey for Breakfast.”

The rambling house – “close enough to campus, people would go there if they had an hour between classes,” Lovett says – featured roommate (and Keen’s longtime bandmate) Brian Duckworth, a good guitarist named Jim Rena and a banjo player named Jim Pinson. For Lovett, the freedom and creativity was inspiring.

“I think one of the first things I said was, ‘I work at the Basement Coffeehouse. Would you like to come down and play?’ They laughed, and someone said, ‘We don’t even have a name.’”
In classic Lovett graciousness, he thought for a second, then said, “Sure, you do. You’re the Front Porch Boys.’”

And so it began. Playing out, chasing the night. One of Keen’s first songs was about that porch. When he played it for Lovett — who finished the homage to an old man, a rent house and the small details of young people finding their way and old people fading by adding a verse about his friend — the man with the high hair knew it was special.

“A real reader appreciates writing,” Lovett offers. “He wrote prose before he wrote songs. ‘The Front Porch Song’ may’ve been the first country song he wrote, and I asked if I could finish it. Robert and I … he’s probably the person I have the easiest time talking with about the creative process. We’ve always been a safety net for each other, to let down our guard and talk ideas, who I play our new songs for.”

Suddenly, a little community started pulling together. Keen moved to Austin but kept in touch with Lovett and an emerging folkabilly queen named Nanci Griffith. He played Gruene Hall, Cactus Cantina, and won the New Folk prize at the 1983 Kerrville Folk Festival. He recorded No Kind of Dancer for $4500, which was picked up by Griffith’s Philo Records.

Teaming with Jim Rooney, known for Griffith’s, Van Zant’s and John Prine’s indie records, West Textures solidified Keen’s approach. Literate, the songs suggested postcards from Guy Clark’s world with a fluid border country that braided elements of Mexican, bluegrass, folk and Lone Star dancehalls into the same kind of Texas country that would make George Strait an icon. Textures contained the profoundly romantic “Maria,” a song Strait would ultimately cover. With its drifter-turned-lover confession, “When I sleep with you Maria, there’s nothing left for dreams to steal,” it marked a Sam Shepard tenderness that never cedes the drifter’s masculine essence.

“Romance doesn’t come naturally to me, but I like it,” Keen confesses. “Think ‘The Last Picture Show,’ the romance between Sam the Lion and the actress. That is some serious romance, especially the way (Peter Bogdanovich) shot it. The great loneliness, the great openness.”

Textures also contained the song that changed everything. Laughing now, he says, “I didn’t even know if it was any good. Jim Rooney didn’t think we had an anchor song, so I asked for an extension ‘til Sunday, and it was Friday. I sat down, just deconstructing the lyric, telling the story.”

When he was done recording, he took it to his publisher to play it. Veteran record guy Al Cooley asked which track to play, and Keen suggested “The Road Goes On Forever,” knowing its origin. “And when it hit the chorus, they jumped up and started dancing around the room, high-fiving each other. I’d never seen anything like it.”

The swaggering road story of a low life outlier and a brazen cocktail waitress was such a sketch of a certain kind of brio, it was undeniable. When Joe Ely, riding high on his post-HighTone/touring with the Clash bravado, made it a cornerpiece of his Love and Danger, as well as “Whenever Kindness Fails,” Keen hit a whole other gear. Suddenly, those taut songs – beyond the crowd-pleasing funny ones about chewing tobacco’s break-up assistance “Copenhagen,” the literal fish story “Five Pound Bass” and the domestic discord homage “The Little Things” – added gravitas to one more songwriter/artist in the crowd.

That’s the thing about Keen. Either you worship him, or you think you know the name. A secret handshake for Texas bona fides, the reverence is earned, not bestowed.

A citizen of the road, he admits that once the Highwaymen made the reckless chorus “the road goes on forever, and the party never ends” immortal, “the next time I got on a plane and someone asked me what I do for a living and I said, ‘songwriter,’ if they asked if they’d know anything I’d written, I had an answer that worked.”

As offhand as that sounds, Keen is still gobsmacked almost two decades later. “It was unreal for me. These are my heroes. The generation ahead of me. I thought I had a lot more to prove, and then that just happened.

“I was always having to explain myself, my voice and how I sang. I failed miserably at it, and then this took care of everything.”

The struggle was real. When Keen returned to Texas, there was the stint – now what would be considered “a residency” – playing for tips in Gruene Hall’s biergarten. He had to find his voice, thinking about who he really wanted to be. But the kid who’d once tried rodeoing wasn’t afraid of the tough work. The more diving he did, the truer his aim became.

And the more other people clamored for those songs. Looking back, he’s equal parts awe and respect. “George Strait’s version of ‘Maria’ is more childlike, and oh my god, it’s fantastic. These are things I never think about, but to write a song someone wants to sing? I’m onto something (when that happens), there’s no doubt.

“I’ve never heard a bad version of one of my songs,” he continues, thinking about the many covers. “And if it becomes more their song than mine, I’m happy for it. What could be greater?”

These days, Keen lives in the Hill Country near Kerrville with his bride, Kathleen. He’s written a couple books, most recently penned an eloquent and analytic tribute to Willie Nelson for Texas Monthly and helms “The Americana Podcast: The 51st State.”

If the pandemic has clipped his touring wings, possibly eviscerating the annual series of Christmas shows which have seen the gruffly stylish bard play two cities a day in some cases, he knows the songs don’t need him to find the people who want to hear them. After stints on Sugarhill, Artista Texas, Lost Highway, Audium/Koch and DualTone, covering all kinds of roots styles, he’s still inspired – and he’s reading, writing and livestreaming when he can.

“The Texas thing to me,” Lovett says, “is a place that’s true. And the reason there’s such creative freedom here is that it’s not a music business center, but opportunities to play live, play for your friends. All of us wanted to write those kinds of songs, to have a new one when you played Anderson Fair, Poor David’s Pub, Cactus Cafe. It’s personal.”

That certainly holds true for Keen. At 64, he’s living life on his terms, making the music he wants and giving people what they’re seeking without selling out.

“All I’ve ever thought about my journey is that I’d never let go. I was never going to give up and stop,” he says now. “I wanted people to hear my songs, to know my music and hear me play. I always felt my heart was in the right place about writing, as long as my integrity was true, how I approached the songs …

“Now if you go to the little bitty tip jar bars or open mics nights anywhere in Texas, people are playing these songs. They have a life that is just out there – and it almost has nothing to do with me. My songs are ubiquitous; they’re just out there. I love that.”

Photo Credit: Nicholas Doll

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  1. Thanks for another insightful article, Holly Gleason. I always wondered what was going through REK’s mind as his career developed, and you managed to shed some valuable light.

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