TV's highly rated Beverly Hillbillies was axed for attracting hicks. Robert Earl Keen wrestles with his own 500-pound demographic gorilla: rednecks. The singer/songwriter -- raised in Houston, he graduated from Texas A&M and now lives in Bandera -- is bigger than God and Patton to the future farmers and junior militarists called Texas Aggies.
The Ags assembled ominously for Keen's New Year's Eve gig in Austin -- eyes filled with blood, cheeks with tobacco, livers with beer. Keen and company were captives to the audience, and the band tried to out-rowdy the rowdies by playing the rambunctious favorites: "The Road Goes on Forever," "The Five Pound Bass," "Corpus Christi Bay."
Why does this smart storyteller noir appeal to the snuff-spewing masses? "Lyrically, I portray myself as a dysfunctional hero," muses Keen. "But I have not courted that crowd. God bless 'em, they've done amazing things for my career, but they scare a lot of people away. At last night's show, some people started gettin' unruly, and I said, 'I'm playin' some nice, sweet songs for these other people, and the rest of you can just shut the fuck up.' "
As inelegant as his rustic musical poetry, the 42-year-old with the creaking barn door of a drawl has developed into one of Texas's top songwriters -- in company with Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark. Though celebrated for his droll-rogue tunes, Keen may be unmatched in the realm of folkcentric character study; he wears his heartaches on his sleeve in songs like "Love's a Word I Never Throw Around" and "Paint the Town Beige."
And like Townes, Guy and Nanci, Keen has little in common with country music, though, as a Texan, the association is his by birthright. "I've never written a country song in my life," he grouses, "but that phrase 'Texas singer/songwriter' limits you. I more or less describe my life and where I live. And that's the purpose behind [Keen's] Texas Uprising. For the longest time, I've wanted to put together a concert with what I thought were really cool musicians -- road-warrior musicians -- and show folks what 'Texas singer/ songwriter' really means."
So the Uprising's akin to a he-man Lilith Fair, with headliners Keen and Steve Earle drawing crowds to see lesser-known talents? "Yeah, that's right. New blood instead of the same old thing. I'll tell ya, music begins and ends in Texas, even if it goes through Nashville or L.A. And," says Keen, blithely mixing metaphors, "I want to pound that bandwagon a little."