The Cult of Keen

Robert Earl Keen has no hits and gets no airplay, but thousands of screaming fans can’t get enough of him—which is why he finally got a major-label deal.

ON ROBERT EARL KEEN’S new live album, No. 2 Live Dinner (Sugar Hill), the chants of his adulators sound like those of a crowd swooning over a prizefighter on his way to the ring: “Robert Earl Keen! Robert Earl Keen!” The Bandera resident wants to be taken seriously as a songwriter, and he deserves to be—he writes long, complex songs of considerable artistry—yet on the new album, the audience’s whooping and word-for-word singing all but drown him out. Like his Texas A&M University pal Lyle Lovett, Keen cut his teeth on the progressive-country sound of the seventies, a casual blend of country, folk, rock, blues, gospel, and Western swing, and seeing him at age forty you think: This is the new Jerry Jeff Walker. But for Keen, that’s not entirely good news. Like Walker, he has ignited in Texas a fervor among educated young kickers and semi-educated kickers and educated semi-kickers—particularly Aggies. After years of beating his head against various walls, he finds himself a cult figure, a top draw at honky-tonks two hundred nights a year. But while cult status carries definite rewards, it can also be a trap.

The duality of the Keen phenomenon was on display in December when he played the Majestic Theater in San Antonio to promote his new single, “Merry Christmas From the Family,” a painfully funny novelty song that Newsweek called “a picture-perfect portrait of a dysfunctional holiday.” Also on the bill that night were Texas peers Jimmy LaFave and Junior Brown. If the crowd was polite to LaFave and more enthusiastic about Brown, it was obvious that few had heard much of either one; they had come to see Keen. Some fans were middle-aged nostalgists for the bygone heyday of progressive country, but far more were in their twenties—striking women in pricey rodeo attire; postgraduate males in boots, jeans, and sport coats; and a rowdy contingent of the A&M Corps, with close-cropped hair and sloshing beer cups. The young men seated behind me talked about several Keen shows they had driven all over the state to see in the past year.

A wild roar greeted Keen when he walked on stage carrying his guitar. He wore boots, a red shirt, and a loose-fitting black suit. Bearded and friendly, he is a handsome presence, but he’s not thin-waisted and antic enough to qualify as a country-western hunk, and his between-song patter suggests a folksinger. Nodding at his fiddler and college roommate Bryan Duckworth, he reminisced: “When we lived in College Station”—another roar—“we used to sit on this old porch on Church Street, right across from the Presbyterian church, and play bluegrass and folk music and talk about girls and where we were gonna move when our parents got our grades. We always looked forward to Sunday mornings there on the porch. We’d crawl out at about eleven-thirty in our underwear, among four or five hundred empty beer cans, strap on a banjo and a guitar, and wait for the Presbyterians to come out of church so we could sing ’em a little gospel music. Give ’em something to think about—on the way to Luby’s.” Keen’s zeal for narrative extends to his songs, the best of which are mini—short stories that sometimes run eight minutes long. But the vocalists behind me didn’t flub a line; each number in Keen’s repertoire was committed to memory. Not that everyone was charmed by the hootenanny. As I faced a wall in the men’s room, a man with some gray in his beard was heard to grumble, “Pretty good show—except for those sonsabitches behind me yelling in three-part harmony.”

Crotchety older fans are the least of the barricades in Keen’s path to mainstream success. His flat baritone voice can roam so far off key that whiskey jiggers rattle. “I’ve always been a little embarrassed about my voice,” he says wistfully. “I kind of get by. But I wish I could really sing—for one hour—just to know what it feels like. Somebody like Vince Gill. Hit those notes, it must just reverberate in your head.” His sound is also too country western to masquerade as rock and roll but too offbeat to fit the seams of mainstream Nashville country, so except for public radio and a few alternative-rock stations, his albums get almost no airplay. And as a lyricist, he shuns the catchy, memorable choruses that make tunes into hits.

Yet Arista/Texas, an Austin-based division of a major label that in its first three years exclusively concentrated on Latino artists, has just signed Keen to a contract and is touting him as the cornerstone of its expansion into the gifted but hard-to-market field of Texas singer-songwriters. What accounts for his long-awaited big break? Formulaic Nashville songwriting reeks of condescension; the slickers who dominate that business cling to an audience concept of rednecks and hillbillies. By contrast, the places and emotions in Keen’s lines ring true, and his storytelling at times has a literary quality, especially when he’s conjuring up characters on the edge. He has written about honeymooners who take a rowboat across the Rio Grande and fall in with a cowboy on the run from the feds, brothers working on oil rigs and drinking themselves to marital ruin on Corpus Christi Bay, and in “The Road Goes on Forever”—covered by both Joe Ely and the Highwaymen—a hapless, updated Bonnie and Clyde.

Such material has struck a chord among a young crowd that is predisposed to favor country music but does not like to have its intelligence insulted by Nashville hokum. The devotion of those fans has pushed Keen’s total album sales up to about 100,000 but also forced on him a dilemma: He found that he needs those noisy crowds and he needs to transcend them. The localism of the cult and its air of juvenilia do not enhance his prospects as a breakout songwriter. But with the signing by Arista/Texas, the music industry has at last given him the chance to prove that his popularity can travel—that

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