The news hit my shoulders like a double dose of elephants doing jumping jacks and my gut like a broken elevator ride. As I watched Robert Earl Keen´s video announcing his retirement from touring and performing, I sat slackjawed as a whirlwind of emotions overtook me. Sad. Bewildered. Forlorn. I was seeking connectivity and began texting musician buddies, some of whom hadn´t yet heard the news. My proclamation that ¨This Bob Keen news is hitting me hard.¨ scared a few of them as they feared and assumed the worst. After a quick correction on my end we began to reminisce and discuss all the ways none of this would be possible without Robert Earl Keen.
Robert Earl Keen was the bridge between Willie, Jerry Jeff and Rusty to Pat, Jack and Ragweed. In the two decades between the Outlaw movement and the explosion of Pat Green in the late 90´s, it was REK carrying the torch of songwriters, original music and a do it yourself ethos. He was packing venues and selling tons of cassettes and cd´s with little to no radio airplay. No internet. Keen was a product of word of mouth. A you have to go see this thing buzz.
I´ve told the story of my introduction to Robert Earl Keen´s music several times on this website and in other interviews. On an occasion such as this, it´s time to tell it again. My sister moved off to college at Texas A&M and on her first summer visit back home she ran to the massive stereo in the corner of my bedroom with a Memorex tape that proudly sported a hastily scribbled title of ¨Robert Earl Keen´s best¨. She got the tape from a friend of a friend who had done some early 90´s audio magic and recorded the tape from the original cassette. This was the TikTok, Instagram, Facebook post of the day. I remember her words, ¨you´ve GOT to hear this guy! He´s hilarious!¨
The first song she played for me was ¨Merry Christmas From the Family¨. I was hooked by the second verse. That cassette led me down a wormhole. It led me to the rest of the REK catalog and artists such as Lyle Lovett and Rodney Crowell. Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. I was still heavily steeped in the 90´s country of the day and the grunge, metal and hip-hop of the day; yet Keen remained my gateway and reminder that an entire other universe existed. A world where the song mattered the most. Topics and themes could be whatever the songwriter dreamed of. The instrumentation was raw but polished and big in just the right spots. The first album of his that I acquired on my own was a cd of West Textures that I purchased at Walmart in a bargain bin around 1995. I was barely driving. But that cd was in the constant rotation of my first trips down the open highways of Texas.
This moment was like boomers seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It opened up my mind.
Of course, ¨The Road Goes on Forever” had been on my intro cassette. What struck me was the ones I had heretofore been unfamiliar with. ¨Sonora´s Death Row¨ was like Tarrantino had re-imagined a Marty Robbins song. The details were so vivid. It was one of the earliest and clearest instances I´ve had of picturing a song coming to life. Then, the track after that is ¨Mariano¨. A heavier one-two punch of story songs have likely never been sequenced. It was these types of revelations that proved Robert Earl Keen was expanding my imaginations and expectations for songwriters. It led me to dive deeper into the works of folks like Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. This was literature put to music. It made me think. I enjoyed the challenge of carving out the songs in my mind. It stayed with me in a way that the Garth, Strait, Jackson tunes of the day did not. From there I bounced around the Keen discography finding No Kinda Dancer, Gringo Honeymoon and of course the quintessential live album of Texas Music: REK´s Live No. 2 Dinner.
That live album recorded at John T. Floore´s did as much as any one product to shape, change and course the blueprint of Texas Music. You come for the songs but find yourself staying for the solos of Bryan Duckworth, Lloyd Maines and Rich Brotherton. The groove laid down by Bill Whitbeck is still reverberating across Bexar and Travis Counties. The way they collectively managed to combine foot-stomping rock n´ roll arrangements of folk songs with a fiddle cutting through it all is something that continues to this day in the bands of Randy Rogers Band, Turnpike Troubadours, Shane Smith & The Saints and Flatland Cavalry. Yet, it was the stories and banter that made it singular. The ¨Mariano¨ and ¨Road¨ intros alone should be put in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The mix of humor, wit and heart in each spoken word that tumbles out with Keen´s smart aleck Texas drawl is just perfect.
Not long after this epiphany I found myself living in San Marcos and going to college. I had fallen in with a surging music scene led by two pied pipers known as Pat Green and Cory Morrow. They were on the top of the mountain, yet from every stage, in every interview and definitely in each conversation they made sure to pay deference to the man that, in their eyes (and mine), sat alongside Willie on the throne of Texas artistry.
In that era of Robert Earl Keen´s career he found himself sharing stages with these young guns who lionized him. The crowds chanted ¨Robert Earl Keen¨ with the same verve, rhythm and passion that they chanted ¨Pat Fuckin’ Green¨. Keen was able to see the Frankenstein he had created come to thrive. His years of touring had built a ramshackle network of venues, clubs, promoters and businessmen that would form the initial Texas Music highways. The twinkle in his eyes onstage during this era looked like a proud father watching his child learn to walk. ¨Feelin’ Good Again¨ sprung from a night out in Bandera with his wife to the standard bearer for what the best songs should sound like. Robert Earl Keen was an attainable legend. He walked among us. I went from a bootleg cassette to shaking his hand at the merch table. Every songwriter I met wanted to be him. He had proven to me and thousands of others that the only real way to do any endeavor worth doing is to do it your own way.
Robert Earl Keen was a bonafide legend in his own time.
As the decade rolled into the 00´s and the Texas Music scene merged with the Red Dirt scene and exploded into what it has now become, Keen was content to chase his own muses. He´d made plenty of money and was now seeking artistic satisfaction. His troubadour heart was bored. The wanderlust had grown dim. He began to dabble in bluegrass and concoct wild stage shows at Christmas time. Duckworth left the band. Some years later Brotherton would too. Whitbeck remained steadfast through every iteration. As Robert Earl Keen followed his own internal navigation, the music business churned around him. It never impacted him. He had created a silo of creativity that protected him from the whims of the modern listening audience. And after 40 years of chasing those various muses, it appears as though Keen is content to smell the roses while he still can.
Keen´s style, influence, songwriting, stage show and business savvy proved to be the blueprint that everyone that has come from Texas and Oklahoma in the last 25 years has sought to emulate. Robert Earl Keen proved that songs can be smart. Smart can be funny. Funny can be sad. Fiction can be real. Real can be fiction. He raised the bar, kicked open the doors and made everyone better. He will be missed on the highway, but he will live forever in our hearts and speakers.