Robert Earl Keen's "Christmas" Present That Keeps Right On Regifting

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For many people, the Christmas spirit fades as soon as the last trash bag bulging with wrapping paper hits the curb. Texas singer-songwriter emeritus Robert Earl Keen is counting on goodwill toward men lasting at least through the end of his "Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee" tour that stops at House of Blues Thursday night.

The Sharpstown native, now 56, has already based a 2005 book on his Stop N' Go-catered celebration of Christmas at the trailer park. This year Keen is fully capitalizing on his self-proclaimed role as the "Jimmy Buffett of December" by throwing open the doors of his enduring 1994 tune "Merry Christmas from the Family" to the audience.

Thus Keen's stage design could include any of the following items: A can of fake snow, Pampers, tampons, Diet Rite cola, bean dip, celery and a crucial extension cord. (Fun fact: Diet Rite still exists, under the Dr Pepper umbrella.)

"We're bringing in the Christmas spirit," Keen promises from his home in Kerrville. "For any of those people who haven't been knocked over the head yet and don't feel in the Christmas spirit, you come to this show and you will definitely feel in the Christmas spirit. The other thing I want to say is that if you missed The Nutcracker, we're perfect for you."

Other than that, Keen says his 2012 has gone "swimmingly."

"I'm in the third decade of doing this, and it's surprising that I can continue to do it and get new crowds, and everybody in the band is rockin' along," he says. "I don't know -- I'm pretty amazed we've been able to fool 'em this long."

Rocks Off: What are your thoughts when you start to realize it's time for another Christmas season?

Robert Earl Keen: I really look forward to it. From the time way back that "Merry Christmas from the Family" caught on fire, we've always been sought-after. We have lots of offers in December to play a lot of shows, so I don't know. It seems to work for me somehow.

I [would] get a little worn out thinking about, "What am I supposed to do for Christmas?", and I don't have to do that anymore. It's like my song "The Road Goes On Forever." I don't have to play "Free Bird."

RO: Because you're working so much around Christmas, do you ever find it difficult to do some more family-type things?

REK: Yeah, that's probably the biggest drawback. I don't do as much with my family as I probably should. However, here's the other thing: I don't have a great big family anymore. A lot of people have either moved on or passed away, and it's my wife and my kids, and everybody else is either too far or they don't exist anymore. So I get in some pretty good time with them, and that's what's important to me.

RO: How based in reality is this song?

REK: One hundred percent. It was in November, and I was sitting around, and I was inundated with Christmas songs. The whole mall and grocery store thing was saturated with Christmas songs, just like it is now. I knew all the standards, and I knew all the words, so I could sing them along with anybody else and that kind of deal. And then it really became painfully apparent that I had no connection with chestnuts on an open fire, or sleigh bells of any kind.

I realized that other than maybe the more religious ones, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or something, I really thought it was like singing some kind of jabberwocky lyrics because I didn't have any idea what any of those things were. I was hanging out, doing my writing thing, and I thought, "I need a song that I can grab onto," and I truly wrote this just for me, just to amuse myself in between trying to write quote-unquote "serious songs."

When I was playing all the songs for the guy who was producing the record at the time, I said, "Oh yeah, and I wrote this song," and he went, "That's brilliant." It turned out every time I'd play it everybody would either fall down laughing or tell me their family story and stuff like that. It's one of those songs that social scientists say has "stick."

RO: Do fans expect to hear it in June or July?

REK: Yep. All the time, they do. And for the longest time, I would not play it between Easter and Labor Day. As long as you were wearing linen or white shoes, I decided it was not any kind of summertime thing, and I would follow the rules, almost fashion rules, where as long as you were wearing linen or white shoes or white belts, you couldn't play the Christmas song. And I didn't.

And then over the years I just went, "aw, what the heck," arbitrary rules. But I do love arbitrary rules, because we live in an artitrary-ruled world, and it's fun to make up your own and watch people go, "Come on, that's not real." I'm like, "Hey, it's my rule. Too bad."

RO: When you were younger, did you have any especially formative holiday experiences?

REK: Absolutely, man. We had fistfights where the brawlers ended up in the trees in the front yard, in the lights that were hung up, getting electrocuted. One year the Christmas tree caught on fire in the living room and we all had to put it out, and throw it out in the front yard.

The most common thing I always remember was from my nephews and nieces would have been about 12 or 13, and my dad would put them on the riding lawn mower and hook a wagon on the back of it, and engage the blade, and give them pellet guns. They would ride around in the yard on a riding lawn mower with the blade engaged, with pellet guns, mowing the lawn right there in Houston, Texas, on the 20th of December.

It would be 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. I always thought that was the ultimate Christmas card, the lawnmower and the pellet guns.

Come back tomorrow for more with Mr. Keen. His "Merry Christmas From the Fam-O-Lee" tour pulls into House of Blues, again, 7 p.m. Thursday at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, www.hob.com/houston. Terri Hendrix & Lloyd Maines open the show.

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