In pondering the uniqueness of Robert Earl Keen, let’s compare him with his fellow Texan Lyle Lovett. College buddies and fellow Aggies, the two co-wrote “The Front Porch Song”, which each recorded early in their careers. They shared a circle of formative acquaintance and influence on the Houston/Austin axis, one that encompassed the likes of Nanci Griffith and Eric Taylor while idolizing Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. They share a deadpan sense of humor and a polite manner toward strangers. They share vocal harmonies on the chorus of “That Buckin’ Song” from Keen’s new album Walking Distance — one of the goofier songs Keen has ever penned, allowing him to indulge in all sorts of “motherbuckin’” wordplay.
In terms of concert atmosphere, however, Lovett and Keen are about as much alike as a chamber recital and all-star wrestling, or chardonnay and Shiner Bock. The sensibility gap between Lovett’s crowd and Keen’s is almost as wide as the generation gap.
“Lyle came to about three shows last year and just freaked out. He said, ‘Man what’s the deal? Those people are really young!’” recalled Keen with a laugh as we spent a sunny afternoon in his office in downtown Bandera. It’s a couple hours of gorgeous Hill Country drive southwest of Austin, a cowboy hamlet where there are more bars than churches and more guitars than anything resembling industry. The sign on the one-story stone building reads W. Preston Gray, Real Estate Etc. Gray is Keen’s father-in-law and Keen is the “Etc.,” though, to hear him tell it, the building is a whole lot busier with Keen’s booming business than real-estate business.
Anyway, back to Lyle: “I mean, his audience is like our age (in other words, fortysomethings), and a lot of them are sophisticated and have a lot of money and love music and all that stuff, but it’s not the gutbucket of America coming to his shows,” continued Keen. “Shoot, I don’t think anybody gets drunk at one of his shows.”
At Keen’s shows, it seems, everybody gets drunk, or puts on a pretty good act to that effect. It started as something of an Aggie phenomenon, with frat boys and alumni from Texas A&M turning Keen’s concerts into a raucous revel of political incorrectness, hooting along at the treachery of “The Road Goes On Forever”, cheering the bloodshed of “Whenever Kindness Fails”, sharing the singalong tenderness of “It’s The Little Things” (“that piss me off”), hungering for “Barbecue”.
Initially, Keen’s yahoo effect seemed like a Texas phenomenon, but he has since proven capable of bringing out the Aggie in the rest of America as well. There’s a ritual at some of the more boisterous Keen performances: A bunch of guys keep ordering rounds of beer until their table is filled with empty longnecks. Then they tip the table, sending the empties crashing to the floor, and start filling it all over again.
“We sell more beer at our shows than anybody else does anywhere,” said Keen, the pride in his voice mixed with just the slightest twinge of remorse. “Oh, man, it’s just nuts. We go to places and they sell out of beer. It’s just like, let’s go get drunk and watch Robert Earl Keen. What we’re bringing to the party is this party atmosphere, and there are quite a few references to being drunk and disorderly in my songs, so I guess that’s where they get that. Probably the number-one remark I get in fan mail or from people talking to me after shows is, ‘My buddies and I like to get really drunk and sit around and play your songs.’ It’s always, ‘really drunk.’ Whatever. I’m glad.”
If he doesn’t sound glad, or at least not unconditionally so, it’s because Keen takes both his writing and his career very seriously. Whatever happy-go-lucky response he elicits, there’s a lot more to his music than the “party hearty” atmosphere his concerts evoke. After all those years of scuffling to the point where he practically gave up, he isn’t about to resist the embrace of an audience — any audience — yet he’s capable of a lot more range and subtlety then one might ever suspect from his shows. He has seen what happened with Jerry Jeff Walker, who also once fancied himself a serious songwriter, before allowing himself to become a caricature to his audience, and then its prisoner.
“It certainly is something that I worry about,” said Keen. “If I have one true gift, it’s actually writing narrative rhyming poetry. I’m not any good at prose, I’m not a great philosophical sort of writer, but I write really good narrative poetry. And some of it is serious. If I’m just known for the Christmas stuff ['Merry Christmas From The Family' and the new album's boozy sequel, 'Happy Holidays, Y'all'] and ‘The Road Goes On Forever’ and ‘The Five Pound Bass’, that’s a mighty small place to live in as far as where I want to live as a writer.”
Thus, his albums claim a more expansive piece of artistic territory, as titles such as A Bigger Piece Of Sky and Walking Distance suggest. The new album is both Keen’s most organic and one of his more thoughtfully ambitious, a thematic song cycle inspired by his life in Bandera, concluding with a mini-suite that he says was sparked by Willie Nelson’s Phases And Stages. As such, the album represents a turnabout from last year’s Picnic, in which Keen avoided any stereotypical Texas reference in his bid for a wider audience.