Even with live music largely on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston native and beloved singer songwriter Robert Earl Keen is finding ways to adapt and stay busy. Keen and his band, along with opening act and fellow Houstonian Max Flinn, will perform at the White Oak Music Hall for a special, outdoor and socially distanced concert experience on Saturday, November 21.
“I’ve had about a dozen shows and I would say out of that twelve, there have been three that were really good, almost felt normal, the rest of them were bizarre,” says Keen.
When asked if looking out into a sea of unreadable, masked faces is what makes the concerts strange these days Keen says it’s not the masks, but the social distancing that really kills the buzz. Keen reflects back on his days of running marathons and the thrill that came with running and celebrating alongside a mass of people with a shared goal.
“There’s a serious people energy that's somewhat electric when you just get in a crowd and it’s exhilarating. I believe that is what a lot of people that really love music, in some ways, they're there to get that feeling and part of that feeling is actually being close to a lot of people.”
Though being physically close is not possible, or wise at the moment, Keen is optimistic about trying to continue live shows while upholding safety standards for him, his band and the audience but admits that the heavy weight of the current climate does not go unfelt.
“It does put a pretty thick magnifying glass on the whole thing. It's like, is this really viable? Is this really art?” Keen has been out on the road for most of the past thirty years and like all performers had some tough decisions to make about the future.
“When this really hit I felt like I could go one of two ways; one was shut it all down and live off of what savings I have and then pick back up whenever or two, I could soldier on and work my best to keep everybody together and that's the one I’ve chosen.”
Keen's yearly and wildly popular Merry Christmas From The Fam-O-Lee Concert has also had to make changes and currently is only planned for a special performance at the Ryman in Nashville, a three night show at the Moody Theater in Austin and a year end show at Billy Bob's in San Antonio.
Along with his hand picked live performances this year, Keen has also built his own Snake Barn Movie Ranch Studios in his city he calls home Kerrville, Texas. Keen has made good use of his new space this year with various live-streams and recorded performances.
On November 21, the same night as his Houston show, Keen and his band will release Western Chill, a recorded performance with fourteen new and unreleased tracks which will also be released as an album on Dualtone Records.
In line with his ability to roll with the punches and try new things, Western Chill will show Keen stepping in and out of center stage as he shared songwriting duties with his regular touring band, some members he's shared the stage with for over 25 years now, no small feat in the world of entertainment.
“Instead of it just being Robert Earl Keen and the band, it's just really, truly my songs and their songs. I thought well, we oughta be more inclusive and try to have a little bit more fun just playing together, not them just learning my songs and playing behind me.”
Western Chill will be Keen’s first album of original music since his 2011 release Ready For Confetti. “I have been dragging my feet on making records and I had some false starts in the last few years about making records,” says Keen admitting he frequently thought about how he could make a new album and simultaneously do something different and meaningful.
“When I figured out that I could write something and I could video it and put it out in a different format, that right there is relevant to the time we are in right here. It didn't put anybody in jeopardy. I just felt like all of a sudden there was a real way to do this, a real purpose behind it.”
Keen says that after that, it was easy to sit down and tell the band what he was cooking up and how they could all work together on Western Chill during this rare downtime from the road.
“When I say 'Western Chill', I’m talking about you know, it's gotta sound really cool and really easy like you want to just sit back and listen to the music or not even listen with great intent, just let it wash over you.”
Keen is confident that he and his band delivered. “It came out,” says Keen proudly. “It came out pretty much like that. I like all the editing process cause I never got tired of the songs.”
For Keen this decision was not only a new way to explore the songwriting and recording process, but also a way to stay active and present at a time when live performances, and the income they generate, just can’t measure up to pre-COVID days.
“Of these dozen live shows, I’ve turned down twice as many. We’ve gotten reports that some people weren't being really careful and some people didn't care at all. I can afford to hang onto this band and keep this going and work my best to make things happen. What I can't afford to happen within that venn diagram is, I can't afford to get sick.”
Another way Keen is staying connected is through his podcast he started in April of last year with his daughter Clara, Americana Podcast: The 51st State . Americana Podcast puts Keen’s familiar and friendly voice in new territory placing him on the other side of the mike asking questions versus using his great ability to tell a story in his own words.
“I really like being on this side of it. At first, I was kind of nervous and didn't really know how to approach it but I caught on pretty quickly and I just really ask stuff that I want to know how to do or somebody describes to me what the process is of something that I really admire that that other person does.”
The goal for Keen and his daughter was to preserve and explore the history of Americana music, a genre not officially recognized by that name until the mid ‘90s, and shed light on the artists who are continuing the rich tradition of storytelling through music.
“I’m part of the Americana Music Association and I participate in their events and everything but I do think that they are way too conservative in their inclusiveness and so we work with some straight on mainstream people but we've done some real outliers,” says Keen of their show.
“I think under the umbrella of Americana music, it's really a big umbrella and there's a lot of great stuff out there and it really truly encompasses everything from folk to blues to rock to bluegrass and even some more edgy stuff, some more ethereal kind of things. We want to explore the whole landscape of Americana so we've been doing that.”
Keen described how his daughter pitched him the idea and that initially she had to pull him into it “kicking and screaming” but then a realization from the road opened his mind up to the idea.
“The thought that convinced me was, I lived in a bus half my life and I really, truly live in a bubble and I have to fight to learn who else is out there. Really my only real connection to other musicians, either like myself or not like myself, is if I play a festival with them but I don't get to go out and hear music. I thought, well maybe this is a way that I can be more connected to the music.”
Americana Podcast celebrated its one year anniversary this past April and has been sustained without advertisers or sponsors which Keen says is a deliberate effort to maintain creative control. The podcast was recently selected to be part of the American Songwriters Podcast Network exposing he and his daughter's labor of love to a wider audience.
He describes working with his daughter as a wonderful, bonding experience. “We balance pretty well because she really is technically proficient and I got a lot of experience in talking,” he laughs.
Keen cut his teeth with the best singer songwriters in Texas music history. He and Texas sweetheart Lyle Lovett got their start while attending college at A&M University. Keen went on to tour as the opening act for Texas legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark across the United States for about a year and a half and grew his own fan base which has kept him pretty busy for the last three decades.
“It was a fabulous experience for me because I got to see people at the top of their game songwriting wise. People were there to see them and I was enough like them where people pretty much gravitated towards thinking that they liked me so it worked very well and then of course I remained friends with Guy forever.”
Americana music has proved time and time again the magnetic power of a good story and draw listeners feel when exploring another person’s perspective.
“I always think within that whole world, that kinda solo singer songwriter thing, I’ve had jillions of people come to my shows and I’ve been with people at the shows that never had experienced that before and by and large most of them came away with a really good opinion and attitude about it but there were a handful that were like, ‘Why does anybody stand around where nobody is talking?,’" he says, laughing. “Cause it’s cool and you’re sitting there getting something from it. You absorb life instead of you just live life.”
Robert Earl Keen will perform with Max Flinn Saturday November 21 at White Oak Music Hall, Outdoor Stage 2915 N. Main, Doors at 7 p.m, $469/grid. Western Chill can be streamed online Saturday November 21, on Nugs.TV at 8 p.m. CST, $10.