Robert Earl Keen wants to set the record straight. While the critically acclaimed Texas troubadour is busy pushing his latest record, Walking Distance (Arista), and headlining the "Texas Uprising" package show, there's a story from his past that dogs him worse than the self-doubt of a character from, well, a Robert Earl Keen song.
So let the truth be known: Texas A&M students Robert Earl Keen and roommate-cum-country-music-giant Lyle Lovett did not sit out on their ramshackle College Station porch in their underwear and serenade female churchgoers passing by on Sundays.
Well, at least not all of the time.
"That always gets blown out of proportion," Keen says with mock defensiveness. "Lyle actually lived down the street from us, and he's much too private to be sitting anywhere in his underwear, much less performing."
This is not exactly a denial. And as for Keen's involvement...
"Well, our house was only a half a block away from the campus, so it was like a bus station with people coming in and out at all kinds of strange hours," he says. "I never even locked it up. And it would get hot. So after a Saturday-night party, you just kind of woke up among the beer cans and the bodies in your underwear, head out for the porch and pick out a blues song."
But what about the church ladies?
"Well, sometimes we'd bait them a little bit," he adds a bit sheepishly. "We had an ongoing secret war with them. Then we'd read stuff in the papers about how we were a dope drop, and it made us sound like Satan worshipers. But sometimes we'd at least sing gospel songs."
Well, there probably won't be much gospel at the raucous "Texas Uprising," but there will be country, blues, rock, Western swing and even some psychobilly as Keen shares the bill with the Reverend Horton Heat, Ian Moore, Junior Brown, Jack Ingram and Pat Green. A side stage will also feature the Hollisters, Reckless Kelly and Charlie Robinson. This is the second year for the "Uprising," which Keen hopes to make an annual event.
"I had always wanted to put together a group show like this, and then I wondered how hard it could be," he says. "I started talking with my booking agent and found out it wasn't. So we just came up with a wish list, primarily Texas acts, and started making calls," he says, adding that presenting a wide diversity in musical styles was always a major goal; he hoped that if people came primarily to see one act, they'd leave appreciating a different one.
"These are just hard-driving, good Texas road bands that play for a living," Keen says. And the 1999 version of the show, which will also visit Forth Worth, Denver and perhaps Reno, was even easier to put together than the first.
"I didn't have to explain what the hell I was doing so much," Keen says, laughing like a mad chef, an artiste who has merrily concocted a sonic sampler of Texas music that's a little on the rowdy side. Just like himself.
When Keen sings a line like, "I don't wear no Stetson / But I'll be willing to bet, son / That I'm a big a Texan as you are," from fan favorite "Amarillo Highway," he states plainly but firmly his outlook on C&W. Born in Houston and raised in Bellaire and Sharpstown, Keen has chosen to feature the highway as a recurring theme in his songwriting since he began plucking a battered guitar in college.
And perhaps no other entry in Keen's catalog crystallizes his obsession with motion, movement and traveling better than Walking Distance, a concept record in which every song has characters either running away from or deliberately pacing toward something.
There's the alienated teen escaping in "Travelin' Light," the hometown boy revisiting old haunts in "Feelin' Good Again," an outlaw eluding the law while plunging deeper into trouble in "New Life in Old Mexico" (part of a larger song cycle) and the distraught lover in "Still Without You."
"When you put someone in motion, then you double your chances of having something happen in a song rather than just having a character sitting there and thinking about his emotions or something," Keen says. "I need activity in my songs and action to portray any types of emotions. I'm not a great writer of heart. I have to put in characters and setting and movement."
Alternately joyous, loping and energetic, Keen's melodies musically support his keen and watchful storyteller's eye. Often plunked in the country category, Robert Earl Keen's music has much in common with folk storytelling, traditional balladry and honky-tonk rave-ups.
With an English literature degree from A&M, Keen has undoubtedly also read countless classical tales and stories that chart the hero's journey. But unlike many scribes -- novelists or songwriters -- Keen very rarely has the plot in mind before he noodles on the strings.
"I just sit down with a blank slate and play the guitar until something comes into my head," Keen says, adding that his least favorite form of songwriting comes from the Let's-rip-off-some-philosophy-and-write-a-song-about-it school. But he's not too in love with his own words to pass up the chance to tip his hat (if he actually wore one) to a favorite songwriter or two. He covers Norman Blake's Old West tragedy "Billy Gray" on Walking Distance, for example.
After graduation Keen knocked about Austin opening up for other Texas performers such as Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and the late Townes Van Zandt, or playing for change at beer joints or anywhere he could plug in his PA. It was on Earle's advice that the frustrated Keen moved to Nashville in 1980 to "break into" the business, even though he quickly found out that his style of songwriting was not selling in the era of Urban Cowboy, the Mandrell sisters and Alabama, and that he could not write a "hit" on demand.
And even though artists such as Joe Ely, the Highwaymen and George Strait eventually covered Keen tunes, the experience sent him back to Austin and his own music. There, he released his debut, No Kinda Dancer, in 1984, on the tiny Philco label. That was followed by six discs on the Americana-driven Sugar Hill Records: The Live Album ('88), West Textures ('89), A Bigger Piece of Sky ('93), Gringo Honeymoon ('94), Merry Christmas from the Family ('95) and Number 2 Live Dinner ('96). The year after Number 2, Keen became Arista's new Austin-based arm's first signing and released Picnic. Its cover featured a photograph of Keen's car burning up in the parking lot at the 1974 Willie Nelson picnic. The vehicle was totaled, and Keen's date left with two other guys, but at least the rowdy Houstonian got to meet the Redheaded Stranger backstage as a sort of consolation prize.
When Keen switched from performing solo to fronting a band, he depended greatly on the instincts of the musicians on the stage with him night after night. He was a bit miffed when Arista insisted on hiring studio guns to play on about a third of Picnic, which, according to Keen, took a lot longer to produce than the rest of the tracks.
Putting his boot down for Walking Distance, he insisted that he use his band, Rich Brotherton (guitar), Bill Whitbeck (bass), Tom Van Schalk (drums) and his actual college roommate, Bryan Duckworth (fiddle, mandolin), as much as he damn well wanted to. Co-producer Gurf Morlix, known for his production on some Lucinda Williams records, apparently agreed. An accomplished guitarist in his own right, Morlix also performs on several tracks.
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Outside of his songs of local hell-raisers, unrequited lovers and contemplative cowboys, there is one song on Walking Distance that stands apart from the rest. Way apart. So much so that not only is it the last track, but it's separated from the rest of the songs by a minute of silence. "Happy Holidays, Y'all" is a rarity, the sequel to "Christmas with the Family," which chronicles another holiday season for The Rednecks. This year, Kay gets a Super-Value pack of Nicorette, Ken receives a Nordic Track, and Fran -- no surprise -- is sitting under the tree in his underwear, drunk again.
Just like how playing the lead in a children's movie gives an actor a broad-based immortality that the entire body of the rest of his work cannot (e.g., is Gene Wilder anything but Willy Wonka to us?), having a Christmas novelty song -- while ensuring your voice will be heard long after you head down that dusty trail for the last time -- does pose some problems.
"While I've got a really loyal fan base, I do have some people coming to the shows that only know that one, and they'll shout out, 'Do the Christmas song!' and get really pissed if I don't," Keen says, laughing. "So I at least try not to play it between April and September. It just ain't right!"
Robert Earl Keen's "Texas Uprising" takes place Saturday, May 29, at noon at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $20 to $35. Call (713)629-3700 or (281)363-3300.