Some of the most iconic musicians in the country world have turned their backs on Nashville. Robert Earl Keen is a member of this outlaw club, joining the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard — men who cared more about the integrity of their personal sound than fitting into a mold created by the mainstream recording industry. Keen is a Texas stalwart who moved to Tennessee in 1985 but stayed just 22 months before fleeing for home. Though he’s never quite become a household name, 19 albums later, Keen still tours regularly and plays crowd favorites like “Merry Christmas From the Family” and “The Front Porch Song” to packed audiences. His fan base ranges from grizzled old hippies to millennial Trump supporters, and when he sings the first line of the chorus to his third-most-requested song, “The Road Goes on Forever,” they all sing back together: And the party never ends…
For a guy who sings about drinking and living hard, Keen’s songs are more thoughtful than raucous. He’s an old-fashioned, big hearted country boy, telling stories about men who make bad choices and the women who stick by them. His peers include Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, the latter of whom he met when they attended college together at Texas A&M University. The two have toured together frequently and came up side by side as performers, despite Lovett’s more prominent reputation. In a 2018 Rolling Stone article about Keen’s cult-hero status, Lovett said of his old pal, “Robert Keen has gotten to do what he wants to do. I look at his career and think all the time that when I met Robert Keen in 1976, I would have never dreamed that in 2018 I’d still be getting to play music, that both of us would be. I look at everything he’s done with great admiration.”
Keen plays at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Feb. 23. Ahead of his concert, he participated in an email exchange with Pasatiempo.
Pasatiempo: Do you know what you’ll play in Santa Fe? How do you come up with your set list?
Robert Earl Keen: I write my setlist the day of the show every time. I change it up every time, too. I even change it minutes before we hit the stage if something just wasn’t sitting right with me. Of course, I always slip in my bigger songs that people come to hear, but I like to have a rise and fall of tempos and buildups. Having a big catalog and playing any number of songs means the shows are different every time. No matter what.
Pasa: What are your most requested songs at live shows?
Keen: “Merry Christmas From the Family,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and “The Road Goes On Forever.” I believe “Feelin’ Good Again” is one of those songs that doesn’t necessarily have a universal meaning but has some kind of universal appeal in that almost anyone can find their own real perspective inside the song. I have heard everything from, “I have lived that,” to quite a few people saying it is a metaphor for heaven. It is somehow cathartic. I get a huge reaction — a bunch of people that are either really sick or really sad and they just played the song over and over and over again. And it made all the difference to them. It has a really good message and an open, this-can-be-anything-you-want [feeling].
Pasa: Do you play “Merry Christmas From the Family” when it’s not Christmastime?
Keen: When I wrote the Christmas song, I was making an album. And I kind of wrote that song for me. To entertain myself and make myself laugh. And then I played it to friend/producer Garry Velletri, and he told me I had to put it on the record. And now that song has become a whole other thing. At a show, I started realizing people just wanted to hear the Christmas song. I wasn’t getting out of there alive without playing it. Now, during the holiday season, I do a Christmas tour all around that song. I still play it throughout the year though. I try to make it a rule to not play it after Labor Day.
Pasa: You have such an emphasis on storytelling that your lyrics can be described as literary. Who are some of your favorite writers or poets?
Keen: I reread Cormac McCarthy often. All of his books.
Pasa: Do you feel connected to the contemporary country music scene?
Keen: When you are a touring musician, you can become really isolated. I strive to stay in the music periphery and hang in there. You can get out in your own solar system, spin out into the universe, and never return. I’m always trying to rope myself back in. I can feel it when it’s happening. Making records is one thing, but I’ve made a lot of records. There are so many other avenues in the music business to explore in a creative way.
Pasa: Do you feel connected to the Americana genre? Had it been around when you were starting out, how do you think your music or career would be different?
Keen: This is how the idea of my Americana podcast got started. I thought this would really, really be good as one of those trying-to-give-back kinda things. It came together because I felt there wasn’t a unified discussion taking place with the genre from the artist’s perspective. A lot of people have seen me over the years and go, “I don’t know what you are, but I like it.” I think a lot of people out there really just aren’t hip to Americana at all — they don’t know what it is. The more we talk about, define, and expand it, the more people will get on board with it, the stronger it becomes.
Pasa: You are considered a die-hard Texan, and with that comes certain kinds of associations that may or may not be true. What does it mean to you to be from Texas?
Keen: Texas is a lot of things. It especially is heard in lyrics, I think. Texas has many different landscapes with ever-changing topography. From the coastal plains to the high plains in Lubbock and Amarillo, from the Piney Woods in east Texas to the Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas ... Texas is ever evolving. Songwriting should be the same, ever-changing with different views and descriptions of life as it happens. It is really not that much different. Texas is basically comprised of hard work, being courageous, and not afraid to take a chance. In my songwriting, I try to emulate those same characteristics. ◀