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.

April 1996By Comments

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 it’s not just a Texas thing.

Of course, the label doesn’t want him to surrender the base or abandon his roots. “One of the strengths of his music,” says Arista/Texas’ vice president, Cameron Randle, “is that it’s specific to Texas.” Keen grew up in the Sharpstown section of Houston; his father was a petroleum geologist and engineer, his mother an attorney. As a teenager, he says, he was a failed junior-rodeo cowboy and a “lackadaisical lump.” The Keens spent most weekends at a country retreat near Columbus. Robert liked to hang out at polka-country dances in nearby Czech and Bohemian communities, but he never had more than a listener’s yen for music until he came home one weekend in 1975 as a freshman animal-science major at A&M and claimed a guitar that didn’t hold his sister’s interest. He changed his major to English and, along with his friend Duckworth, started serenading the neighbors.

College Station was not the hippest place in Texas to start building a musical résumé, but Keen enjoyed his time there, and progressive country had caught on big on campuses all over the state—not just in the performer’s mecca of Austin. His first love and inroad to the scene was bluegrass, a form usually associated with agile tenors. Still, he and Duckworth held forth on the front porch on Church Street, prompting a shy and strange-looking young man to stop his bicycle and chat. They handed him a guitar and he played and sang a tune, impressing them greatly. Lyle Lovett was a journalism major, and he booked Willis Alan Ramsey, Nanci Griffith, and other Austin performers for a roving coffeehouse called the Basement Committee. The summer of 1978, when Keen’s housemates went home and he stayed on to improve his grade point average, he and Lovett became everyday companions. “Lyle was a lot more defined, a lot more out in the open about wanting to be this music guy,” he says. “That helped me be more assertive. Playing music was something worthwhile, not just a hobby.”

After graduating from A&M in 1980, Keen moved to Austin—just in time to find that cosmic cowboys had become passé. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, and other blues regulars were the new rage in town. During the day, Keen pushed regulatory paper as an oil proration analyst for the Texas Railroad Commission; at night, he played solo anywhere he could, seldom making more than $25 a show. While he managed to attract some attention—in 1983 he won a best new songwriter award at the Kerrville Folk Festival—he knew he had to have a record to make real headway in the business, so he borrowed $100 each from twenty friends and $2,000 more from a young Aggie banker in town, then put out his 1984 debut, No Kinda Dancer (Workshop Records). A new friend and upcoming country singer, Steve Earle, urged him to leave Austin, lest he wind up like all too many of its musical talents, soaking up booze and not knowing when to quit.

Keen made the songwriter’s pilgrimage to Nashville that year, and his girlfriend, Kathleen, whom he’d met after she laughed and swigged through one of his happy hour gigs, followed a few months later. They married and made some friends, but for Keen the sojourn was brutal. He dug ditches, worked in a printshop, landscaped a lawn in a weeklong deluge. He won a little studio time from a foundation partly endowed by Waylon Jennings, but the session critique came back scathing: “They couldn’t believe somebody would even submit this as a song,” Keen recalls. “‘There’s no hook.’” Compounding and complicating his misery was the reception granted his soul mate Lovett, who with Arizona musicians had recorded a superb demo tape and had come to Nashville with a clear strategy and expectations of success. Lovett’s tape and his signing to a record contract set off an industry buzz; Keen felt himself being relegated to the entourage. “There wasn’t anybody to blame,” he says. “Lyle got some immediate great success, and I was going the other way. I was trying to make my marriage work, make my life work. Every ounce of me wanted to be in this business, but I could feel it slipping farther and farther away. And I just about quit playing. In Nashville you have to stand in line and be auditioned for an open mike three months later, and then you play three frigging songs? For free? I’d say, ‘Jesus, this is nuts.’”

The last straw came in early 1987. On the way back from a gig in Kansas, the Keens’ car broke down. While Robert was looking under the hood, Steve Earle’s touring bus whooshed past. It took all the money he’d made in Kansas to get the car fixed, and when they got to Nashville, they found their apartment had been burglarized. “Kathleen had stayed pretty cheerful, and I know I was hard to live with, but when I said, ‘What do you think about moving?’ there was not a second’s hesitation. ‘Anytime.’” Keen’s most affecting love song is called “Leavin’ Tennessee.”

Kathleen’s parents owned a nursing home in Bandera and gave her a job. They also helped the couple buy a brick house that was almost wrecked by years of vacancy and burst plumbing. “My tail was between my legs,” Keen says about the Texas homecoming. “I kept thinking, ‘Man, you have just killed any chance you had for a music career.’” But then Gruene Hall offered him a weekly gig, which helped restore his confidence. With Duckworth and other Central Texas players, he began to change his performance style from solo folk to roadhouse rowdy. Sugar Hill—an independent label in North Carolina that specializes in bluegrass and Americana—signed him and allowed him to trust his instincts and material. KRIO, a San Antonio station then devoted to Texas music, pushed him hard, and the cult began to form. One night in 1991 Keen and his band showed up to play a little restaurant on Broadway and encountered about five hundred people milling around the parking lot. The musicians thought it was a crime scene, but they were fans.

Suddenly, Keen was packing howling crowds of four thousand into Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. In 1994 one of those dates led to another lesson in humility: Someone at the club arranged for Keen to sing the national anthem across town at the A&M— Texas Christian University football game. “A star-spangled disaster,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t have much range, and I was worried about hitting the high notes at the end. I thought I’d better start low, and at the last minute I decided to drop it half a note lower. So then I couldn’t hit the low notes.”

On No. 2 Live Dinner, Keen performs similar vocal gymnastics, with similar results. The album captures the mood of his concerts but also songs that were hurried, times his voice broke, and some licks a guitarist would like to retrieve. As with most such recordings, you need to have been there; this one should have been left in the can. Yet even a misstep by Keen can’t take away the incremental growth evident in his studio albums for Sugar Hill: West Textures, A Bigger Piece of Sky, and Gringo Honeymoon. Cameron Randle saw it, which is why he signed Keen in the first place. “We’re not going to ask him to change the literary storytelling,” Randle says. “He is our flagship Texas singer-songwriter. But we’re also going to see how far we can go with the broader, more universal side of his writing. And, quite frankly, that remains to be seen.”

What happens to Keen’s cult status also remains to be seen. “I’ve had friends tell me, ‘Man, I’m sorry, I just can’t come to your shows anymore,’” he told me. “It’s not just Aggies; it’s a fraternity thing. Sometimes the youth and testosterone just overwhelm them. I wind up feeling like a second-grade teacher. But they’re a large part of my audience, and I’ve never been one to lecture a crowd. Lyle’s done that twice recently—walked offstage after saying, ‘I’ll be back when you quit smoking pot.’ I couldn’t believe it. Shut up, man. Play.”

That’s the difference between them. Lovett is a star, a luxury that allows him to enforce his will and whims. Keen is hot but still scrambling, and he understands how reliant he is on those raucous crowds. “I don’t want anybody to get trampled,” he told me with a sigh. “But if they want to sing along, fine. They’re not memorizing my songs by reading liner notes. What that tells me is they’re listening to those records over and over and over.”

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