Robert Earl Keen
The most successful artist that many Americans have never heard.
Rather appropriately, mystery pervades the career of Robert Earl Keen, the most successful artist that many Americans have never heard. He’s had his songs recorded by George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, the Dixie Chicks and the Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash & Kris Kristofferson); appeared in such prestigious publications as Playboy and Men’s Journal; performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Today Show; had Garth Brooks mention his music in one of his own songs, and played concert venues steadily for more than 20 years. By his own admission, he’s never had a song hit the Top 10 of a major chart, and yet he consistently plays sold-out shows for audiences that number sometimes as many as 25,000.
Keen’s career—hugely successful while dodging the music industry’s most obvious channel of exposure, mainstream radio—remains a bit of a mystery even to him.
“As time goes by, it becomes a greater and greater curiosity,” he confesses. “I literally can play a 90-minute show and almost everybody in the room will be singing every song. To me, that’s what it’s all about. If people are recording your songs and singing your songs, then you’re successful. If you play these songs and nobody cares, then you’re not successful. My thing is like I’m extremely successful because so many people know so many of my songs. They don’t know one song—they know them all!” This high-energy fan participation can be, not only heard, but experienced on Keen’s latest release, recorded live at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium (the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry before it moved to the permanent Grand Ole Opry House). Keen delights a packed house with first class renditions of some of his biggest hits and best loved songs including “What I Really Mean,” “Broken End of Love,” and “Amarillo Highway.” Live at the Ryman captures the high energy experience that has made Keen a favorite of audiences all over the country. “Sometimes I say this jokingly, but I think this is pretty much the key,” Keen observes. “I don’t think I intimidate anybody with my voice. My vocal range is so limited that anybody that’s even had a tracheotomy can follow what’s going on. Everybody can sing a Robert Earl Keen song. You’re not gonna be thrown a big curveball by some huge falsetto piece in the middle of it. They work, and they sound good, the words fit together well, and they’re easy to sing. I think people like that.”
And surely they do, as Keen’s albums continue to receive critical acclaim and success. Keen’s latest studio album, What I Really Mean, topped #1 on the AAA charts and charted as the number two American album for all of 2005. The Washington Post called it “another terrific disc…a fine choice for those searching for country music with character and authenticity.”
The simple and honest storyteller is certainly the kind of artist that attracted Keen in his formative years. Born in Houston to a Texas oilman and an attorney who turned him on to authors and poets, he began writing his own poems around the age of five. He didn’t begin to consider his rhymes as song lyrics until he started playing guitar at age 18, while majoring in English at Texas A&M.
In the meantime, he became enamored of roots music performers—the Western tales of Marty Robbins, the mournful laments of Hank Williams, the passionate rhythms of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.
As a teenager, Keen scoured the discount bins for authentic music, and it’s likely there that he and fiddler Brian Duckworth found an eight-track of Jimmie Rodgers, widely regarded as the Father of Country Music. Rodgers’ hard-edged performances are not too far removed stylistically from the blues of Robert Johnson, who recorded during the same era, and Keen was immediately taken by the honesty in the Singing Brakeman’s music.
“It made all the sense in the world to me,” Keen recalls. “I don’t know if I liked it before, but since then, I’ve always liked that one-guy-with-guitar-with-the-story-kinda-song thing, whether it’s folk or country or whatever.”
Though Keen completed his college work, he found his true passion in the clubs, bringing his oddball characters to sonic life and gaining a sense of community with the audience through music he necessarily writes in painful solitude. National Public Radio and the occasional alternative-country program provided exposure for such Keen classics as the anthemic “The Road Goes On Forever” and the twisted “Merry Christmas From The Family,” attracting new fans to his energetic shows, which grew in larger numbers through word of mouth.
Keen’s efforts had a distinct effect on Texas’ music. Lone Star club-goers were notorious for their insistence that bands play two-step music—if an artist couldn’t make them dance, they usually were not invited back. Keen broke that barrier, establishing a new interest in thoughtful and unusual singer-songwriters. As a result, he paved the way for such artistic Texans as Jack Ingram, Pat Green, and Charlie Robison.
Keen’s set lists are ever-changing, the songs often undergo metamorphoses with continued playing, and his band—whose “newest” member has been with Keen for five years—revels in versatility. As a result, the concerts are often as unpredictable as the people he sings about.
The Road Goes on Forever
Feelin' Good Again
Shades of Gray
The Front Porch Song
Corpus Christi Bay
Merry Christmas from the Family
I Gotta Go