If you only know Robert Earl Keen from "Merry Christmas From the Family," funny and true-to-life as it is, that's still a shame. The dark, pointed humor that has made that song (originally released on his 1994 LP Gringo Honeymoon) one of the most beloved holiday tunes of the past 20 years is veined throughout Keen's 16-strong discography, from 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer through last year's Ready for Confetti.
Likewise, if you think Keen, who grew up in Sharpstown, is strictly a local hero or a Texas phenomenon, think again. A sizable majority of his some 150 tour dates per year take place across the state line, and both Confetti and its predecessor, 2009's The Rose Hotel, reached No. 1 on the Americana Music Association's radio-airplay chart.
But it is Texas that loves him best, and in March of this year, Keen was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside his onetime Texas A&M roommate Lyle Lovett and one of his heroes, the late Townes Van Zandt. Rocks Off spoke with the proud Aggie (especially this year) a few days before he set off on his "Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee" tour that hits House of Blues tonight.
Rocks Off: Congratulations on this Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame induction.
Robert Earl Keen: Isn't that cool? I didn't know what that was about, but my friend Jody Williams at BMI called me about a year before almost and said "You should do this. This is really neat. I do some of these things and they do this all right." I said, "OK. I'm happy to do it."
All the time up to it until about three days before, I had it in my mind I was just going to drive my car up to the curb and park it and leave it running, and run in and grab my award. Then I realized, "Wow, this is legitimate. They filled up the Moody [Theatre] with people, and it was pretty exciting."
RO: Is that a more important award than some others you've won?
REK: I don't know. I'm not sure about all the awards things; I'm a little cynical about all that stuff. But I will say this: What made that special was the night itself, and the people who put it together. They were as earnest as a block of wood, just down to Earth and wanted us to have that. And also to be honored among Lyle and Townes was I think about as good a recognition as you can possibly get in the singer-songwriter business. I don't think there's two finer songwriters that are out there, so I felt pretty special.
But the rest of the thing about awards, I'm a big fan of movies and books and all kind of stuff, and you look through all these awards and you go, "This just seems totally made up," so I'm not really sure about those. But the one that I got, that was really solid.
RO: It seems like on your last few records, you've really got into this real nice little groove. Is that how it feels for you?
REK: Very much so. I look at different things. Speaking of movies, I look at certain directors who find a nice stable or team -- they have a great director of photography, and they have great editors and music people, and they use them over and over, and they have actors they use over and over. You can find it in music as well.
Not with bands, I'm talking about mostly like solo artists like myself. I've been playing with this band for 20 years, I've known Lloyd Maines for 20 years. We found a studio right outside of Austin that really works, and the people are super-nice to us, and I have zero supervision from any kind of record companies anymore. So it just falls in perfectly.
To me, I wish I had found this connection early on, but you have to understand -- early on when you're making a record, everybody wants to tell you what to do all the time. Even if you know what to do in your head. You try to listen and placate people about this and that, and it usually ends up watering it all down. So the bottom line on that one: I do it how I want to now.
RO: Can you believe Ready for Confetti was your 16th album?
REK: No, that's amazing. Really, truly, I couldn't order a pizza in college. I was too shy, too screwed-up in the head. Somebody would go "We need a pizza," and I'd go, "You have to do it, because I can't do it. I can barely walk and tie my shoes, man."
So to go through that process and make all those records, and play all the places I have, I'm pretty amazed. I've come a long way as a human being, I guess.
RO: I wanted to touch back on Gringo Honeymoon real quick. Our paper just ranked the best 30 Texas albums of the past 30 years, and Gringo came in at No. 20. What's your favorite song off that record?
REK: I'd say "Dreadful Selfish Crime."
RO: That's a great one.
REK: Thank you.
RO: Is there anything about that record you would change today?
REK: I'd change my vocal. I had such a hard time in the studio when I started it. That's another thing that would apply to then and now. I was always trying to music right, and I don't feel like I was quite as expressive with my voice. And I was always worried about my voice.
I'm not a great singer, so I think I undershot it all the time. If I were to do it again, that would be the main thing. I would be singing with all my warts-and-all expressiveness.
RO: I feel like I have to ask you about Johnny Football. Did you watch him play ball at Tivy?
REK: Yeah. My daughter went to Tivy. She was a sophomore when he was a senior, so I went to some games there. I was aware of his athleticisim. Also, his father plays golf where we live, so I ran into him a few times. I was sort of aware of him, and I was definitely a fan, and I was disappointed when he went to A&M and they didn't start him right off the bat.
So when he started, for my part I had a great deal of anticipation, and man, I was knocked out. I saw the first game he played at A&M and I thought, "Man, there's something different about this guy. He's totally in control. As reckless as he can look, he's the person that you look to for the answers on the field."
It was really exciting. I was down with the whole thing. I watched all the games. I hadn't watched Aggie games in years because I got tired of "Wait 'til next year" and "This is our year" and all that crap. It never was our year, but this is our year, and nobody has to make any apologies.
RO: So you could tell he was going to be pretty great?
REK: I thought so. I think if you can go back to the footage of the first three plays he played against Florida, you would go, "Oh my God, this guy knows what he's doing."
RO: And then as an old Oilers fan, have you been able to embrace the Texans at all?
REK: You know, I played their coming-out party, or their debutante party, whenever that was. Gollee, that was almost ten years ago. I kinda tried to watch, but I felt like I was just going to set myself up for disappointment.
I understand that they're doing well this year, and that's good for them. I'm glad. I am a fan of Houston, Texas, regardless of any sports. I always tell people, it's kind of hard to see on the surface, but it's a really fascinating, interesting town.
RO: We think so.
Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee" tour decorates House of Blues at 7:30 p.m. tonight, with guests Terri Hendrix & Lloyd Maines.