Robert Earl Keen’s never had a hit—at least not in the traditional chart-topper sense. And he didn’t wear a hat for every album cover, show and publicity shot. He tried but failed to make it in Nashville.
None of that matters. Keen’s songs about the good times and the hard times, and his sardonic wit, amiable stage presence and devotion to the road earned him loyal fans from coast to coast.
Keen’s peers, many of whom are great songwriters themselves, paid him the supreme compliment by performing his songs. Those folks include George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith, the Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry, the Highwaymen (a.k.a. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings), Shawn Colvin and Gillian Welch.
Keen’s best-known songs include “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Corpus Christi Bay” and his cheeky holiday tune about drinking, smoking and last-minute shopping, “Merry Christmas from the Family.”
Growing up in Houston, Keen discovered his flair for poetry. He picked up a guitar during his senior year of high school. Mixing words with the chords came easily to him. Later at Texas A&M University, English major Keen befriended Lyle Lovett, a journalism major already quite advanced in the songwriting arts.
In 1980, Keen graduated from college and moved to Austin. He pretty much made a living there playing music. But in 1985, at the recommendation of fellow singer-songwriter Steve Earle, Keen made an ill-fated move to Nashville. Music City didn’t agree with him. After 22 frustrating months, he fled back to Texas.
19 albums and a million miles later, Keen plays up to 140 concerts a year. In February, he joined star attraction George Strait and Lyle Lovett for concerts in Las Vegas. They’ll do it again in December. This year also saw Keen on the road with one of his early inspirations, Willie Nelson.
Keen also participates with other songwriters and recording artists in the Record Academy’s annual Grammys on the Hill Awards and Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. In April, they promoted the Music Modernization Act. The bill’s provisions include a guarantee that music streaming services pay songwriters and artists for music recorded before 1972. The proposed law also provides for a statutory right to recognition for adjunct creators, including producers, sound engineers and mixers.
This fall, Texas A&M University will honor Keen with its Distinguished Alumni Award. And perhaps the ultimate sign of troubadour success: Robert Earl Keen beer has been available since 2014.
In advance of his September 13 show at Tipitina’s, a New Orleans venue he’s played approximately 20 times through the decades, the distinguished A&M U alumnus spoke to OffBeat.
You’ve performed often at Tipitina’s. Do you have any particular memories of those shows?
I never think the show’s ever gonna start until it starts. Even now, when I know what we’re getting into, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is place is funky.’ At about 9:30, I’m thinking, ‘Where are all the people?’ And then, all of a sudden, boom, they all show up. It’s like a magic trick.
You’ve toured extensively for more than 30 years. How much traveling do you do nowadays?
I’m always chasing my tail. The past two years I did more road work than I could have ever imagined. When you do what I do, you grow up in this business saying, ‘Yes, yes. I’ll take it.’ I trained myself to say yes to everything. But then I reached a point where I don’t have to always say yes—but I still do.
In addition to your success as a performer, so many artists have recorded your songs.
Yeah, that’s the best thing. I get a huge kick out of that. It justifies me sitting down and strumming a guitar and thrashing out a song. I have heard some pretty weak versions of my songs, but I go back to that thing of songwriting being one of the oldest forms of communication. It’s exciting to create something that other people will pass along. Not just because I’m somebody important. I’m sure a few people record my songs because they think I’m something, but I always think it’s because the song has merit. That’s the only reason I’d ever do somebody else’s song.
On another important note, in April you and other songwriters and recordings artists participated in the Recording Academy’s Grammys on the Hill Awards and Advocacy Day. Why did you become an advocate for musicians’ rights?
People started asking me if I would speak about what I believe. I believe people ought to be able to make a living in music. It’s easy for me to get on board for that.
I’ve been able to hold onto my career for the past 30 years. A lot of that is because I do read contracts. I do argue with record companies. I do try to figure out how to at least be fair in paying people and do the right thing. But as far as I know, in the independent world, I’m pretty rare in knowing these things.
A lot of this was in the hands of managers, booking agents and record companies. But since the whole music world turned upside down with the advent of full-blown streaming and music on the Internet, it’s kind of become every man for himself.
On April 25, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Music Modernization Act. The Senate hasn’t voted on the bill yet, but the house voted unanimously for it. You and your fellow musicians actually found bipartisan support for a bill in Congress?
When the Internet started dictating the way music is bought, sold and given away in this country, somehow, somewhere, somebody passed a law that said songs written before 1972 weren’t due any compensation. That includes so much of our American soundtrack. These people aren’t getting paid. That struck a chord with everybody.
You moved to Nashville in 1985. How did that go?
It didn’t. Of course, I didn’t research anything about Nashville, because I never research anything. I really grew up in the music business in Austin. I graduated from A&M, moved to Austin, got a regular job and played and played and played. There were tons of places to play in Austin. I even got where I didn’t have to work that much on my regular jobs. I made a living just playing every other night.
And then I moved to Nashville. Everything in Nashville is about showcasing your talent or playing benefits for people who have problems. Basically, there’s no money in performing. My gigs just dried up.
And I love playing. I mean, the things that I deal with in music are writing songs and playing. In Nashville, I was writing, but I could never get to feel how the songs work [in front of audiences] I wasn’t getting enough stage time. At the same time that I was failing in Nashville, people of my generation were blowing up. But I was still thinking, ‘Well, somebody’s going to hear me sometime. Something’s going to work.’ It didn’t. I lost a lot of ground because I couldn’t find my spot up there in Nashville. I finally moved back to Texas.
But your Texas music peer, Steve Earle, recommended your move to Nashville?
Of all people to take advice from, right? Steve told me I should suffer for my art. Oh, yeah, I did suffer. But it was like the whole Joseph Campbell thing about going off into the forest and finding yourself and coming back and being a different person. Just like people go into the military service, or anything else they do when they’re young. You really have to break all ties and find how you work on your own, without anything but your wits and your own ability to make something happen.
How did things go once to you got back to Texas?
I was pretty devastated for a few months. Like, ‘What am I gonna do now?’ I was sort of grieving. But then one day I just woke up. I said, ‘I know I can do this.’ And things ticked up considerably for me. All of a sudden people were calling me. After two years of nobody calling, that was a welcome surprise. I hit the ground running.
At the same time, I started working on why Nashville didn’t work for me. Within that same year, 1987, I talked to some of my friends at BMI in Nashville. We agreed that my approach had been all wrong. Because I had been telling people I was the next big hit songwriter, instead of saying I was a solid songwriter and I had my own thing going. And I talked to some cool people in Nashville, got a songwriting deal and went back on the road. Things picked up. I made another record and kept moving.
You turned 62 this year. Do you think you’ll work as hard and long as, for instance, Willie Nelson? He’s 85, so you’ve got 23 years to catch up with him.
I might try to take it a little easier than Willie. That’s a lot of work. But, you know, I skipped my senior prom to go see a Willie Nelson show. And now, at his age, when you see him, the first couple of songs he seems like he’s struggling a little bit. But by the time he gets to song three or four, he’s just fully powered by passion.