Robert Earl Keen married careless soul with country smart-ass and came up smiling. He has captured the coarse irony of good people tumbling across the Texas landscape, staring down fate and two-stepping the night away. A native of Houston, now living in the Texas Hill Country, Keen’s songs are equal parts reckless joy and dusty sorrow, but in the end, always ring true.
Keen was born in Houston and grew up a natural reader, excelling in literature and poetry. His parents were busy professionals with little musical inclinations, but his siblings helped the young Keen stir the embers of his artistic side…his brother introducing him to the music of Willie Nelson and his younger sister contributing by way of her mad foosball skills. She dragged him to tournaments in the bars of Houston where he soaked up the sights and sounds of traditional country music, and he was hooked. The summer before starting college, Keen picked up his first guitar and began teaching himself to play, studying a country music primer. The embers flared into a bonfire when he met and befriended another Texan in journalism class at Texas A&M University…a fellow by the name of Lyle Lovett.
The college years were rich and productive for the budding musician. Keen spent most of his evenings exploring bluegrass and folk music in the local bars, and long afternoons spent on the porch of his rental house at 302 Church Avenue, often in the company of Lovett or his good friend Bryan Duckworth, who would go on to become a fixture in Keen’s band as a fiddle player. That porch became a sacred gathering place and the inspiration for “The Front Porch Song”, a classic co-written by Keen and Lovett that would appear on their respective debut albums. Whether he knew it at the time, Keen was forging literary talents and planting the seeds for an artistic style that would someday rock the Texas music scene and help shape what was becoming progressive country music.
This would not happen overnight. Keen moved to Austin after graduation, continued writing and performing and became a regular at venues like the Cactus Cafe and Gruene Hall. He won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1983, the same year he produced his debut album…but continued to struggle to find his place. At the urging of friend and fellow songwriter Steve Earle, Keen moved to Nashville to make his mark, his new wife Kathleen in tow.
Music City was not kind to the young Texan, and Keen missed his mark, maybe the target altogether. The lowest point came when Robert Earl and Kathleen drove to Lawrence, Kansas for a gig. On the way back, their car broke down and left Keen standing on the side of the road, wondering what to do, when a bus came blowing by, “Steve Earle” painted on the side. The car repairs soaked up all their savings, and they arrived back home in Nashville to find an empty and vandalized house.
Keen’s mantra is simple, “brute force and ignorance…just keep pushing”. Push he did. Twenty-two months to the day after they moved to Nashville, Robert Earl and Kathleen returned to Texas and made peace with the fact that he might not ever perfectly “fit” in…but they would be happy.
He kept pushing, kept up the “brute force” with a tireless devotion to touring. His performances accentuate his multi-faceted talents in folk, country, rock, bluegrass and, of course, Americana, and he guides his audiences through a complete range of emotions with emotional ballads to wistful stories of western life to hard-rocking anthems, always with a little careless soul and country smart-ass mixed in.
Whether writing songs in a small cabin tucked away in his Hill Country ranch or composing on the bus during a grueling tour, Keen is a songwriter to be reckoned with…one who just keeps on pushing. He has performed and collaborated with such talented musicians as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Gurf Morlix, Margo Timmins and Natalie Maines, while his songs have been recorded by the likes of George Strait, Joe Ely, Lovett, Nanci Griffith and the Dixie Chicks.
Three things you should know about Robert Earl Keen: (1) he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, along with his friend Lovett and the late Van Zandt, (2) one of his favorite quotes is from the movie Diner when Mickey Rourke says, “Do you get the feeling that something’s going on that we don’t know about here?”, and (3) he has recorded twelve studio albums, six live albums and one compilation, for a total of nineteen career releases, so far.