Exclusive Song Premiere: Robert Earl Keen Revisits “Shades of Gray” for ‘Live Dinner Reunion’

Twenty years after the release of his classic live album, ’No. 2 Live Dinner,’ Robert Earl Keen returns to the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes for a reunion.

Robert Earl Keen, photographed in Kerrville, Texas on July 4 2016. Photograph © 2016 Darren Carroll

In 1976 Robert Earl Keen was a fresh-faced Aggie scribbling lyrics and strumming a guitar on an old wooden porch in College Station. What started in those porch pickin’ sessions blossomed into an impressive career that now spans nineteen albums and nearly four decades, bolstering Keen to “living legend” status in his home state. Part of that success can be traced to his 1996 live album, No. 2 Live Dinner, which Keen and his band recorded at John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes. A fan-favorite and the best-selling album of Keen’s career, it perfectly captures the enthusiastic revelry that has long been a hallmark of his live shows. It also highlights Keen’s incredible (and underrated) ability to turn a rhyme. From tales of romance on the Rio Grande in “Gringo Honeymoon,” to the humor and dysfunction of the holiday season in “Merry Christmas From the Family,” Keen writes of Texas and Texans with wit, tenderness, and an acuity typically reserved for Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists such as Larry McMurtry.

To celebrate the album’s twentieth anniversary, Keen and his veteran band returned to Floore’s Country Store for what they are hailing as the Live Dinner Reunion. Despite the name, Floore’s isn’t a store at all but a cafe with a small indoor stage and a large, open air space for outdoor shows. Since it opened in 1942, Floore’s has hosted some of the biggest names in music—Elvis, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, to name a few. Keen has played this “all-time favorite” every year since he earned his first gig there in the early nineties, and he’s always drawn a crowd. When he announced the reunion show, five thousand fans showed up to sing along, as well as a handful of the troubadour’s musical compadres including Bruce Robison, Cody Canada, Cory Morrow, Cody Braun of Reckless Kelly, Joe Ely, and his friend and collaborator since those porch-picking days in Aggieland, Lyle Lovett. The resulting record stands as the most comprehensive review of Keen’s catalog to date. There are enough classics to ensure it feels like a proper homage to its inspirationbut new material keeps it from straying too far into the overly nostalgic territory of a “best of” album or merely repeating the same feat of No. 2 Live Dinner.

For longtime REK fans, this album will undoubtedly live up to its title as a good-time reunion. For the uninitiated, the record offers a perfect entry point to one of the state’s most important songwriters. Listen, repeat, and before long you’ll be raising a Shiner Bock and hollering along with the rest of Texas, “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends!”

Texas Monthly is proud to premiere “Shades of Gray,” the first single from Live Dinner Reunion, out November 18.

Below is an exclusive Texas Monthly interview with Robert Earl Keen. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Christian Wallace: I’ll get to the new record in just a moment, but there’s something I wanted to ask you first. What are your thoughts on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize?

Robert Earl Keen: Well, I think he’s fantastic. I came to the party on being a fan of Dylan late, but I have to say that he is an amazing wordsmith. One of the things is, they finally picked somebody that I’m familiar with. I was really happy to be on the side of, “Oh, I know who that is, and I like him—for once.” And the other thing is, it’s just cool. It’s about time they mix a little pop culture with a bit of high culture. I’m glad they picked him.

CW: If there are other songwriters alive today worthy of the Nobel Prize, who comes to mind?

REK: Well, that’s a tall order, isn’t it? It seems like some of the criteria might have to do with having a large fan base. The people I’m usually most interested in don’t have the same base that Dylan has. But I’m on the spot, so—Neil Young.

CW: You recorded the new album at Floore’s Country Store, the same venue you recorded No. 2 Live Dinner twenty years before. You’ve toured honky-tonks and dance halls across the country, what is it about Floore’s that has kept you coming back?

REK: A couple things. I love the setting. I’ve been going to dance halls since I was a really little kid. I went to a lot of dance halls in the Gulf Coast area—Columbus, Hallettsville, La Grange. A lot of towns that had these little dance halls, real Czech or German places. I’ve always liked them. Some of my earliest memories, from when I was like four, are sliding across some dancehall. Some place like Nelsonville. And then we’d go out to West Texas, and they have these really broad, open air things. I thought they were just the coolest places. It was a different kind of music—it’d be Western swing—but that was pretty far West. You’d have to go to San Angelo, Ozona, somewhere like that. When I first saw Floore’s Country Store, that’s what it reminded me of. It’s kind of got a wide, wild West, sort-of-open dance floor. I really didn’t know a lot about it, except for the mention Willie Nelson gives it on “Shotgun Willie.” But when I moved out to the Hill Country around 1987, I used to pass it all the time. I realized they didn’t have any regional acts—just swing bands and stuff like that. A booking agent, Denise Stiff—who also ended up managing Alison Krauss—and myself hounded this guy until he let us play there. And when we did, I had seven hundred, eight hundred people show up on a Sunday, which is a pretty good number for someone that no one knew. Playing there felt just like it looked. It’s big and open, and the sound kind of goes up toward the clouds. I just dig it. So, from the first time we played there in the early nineties to now, it’s been at least a once-a-year thing. It’s one of my all-time favorite places to play.

CW: Floore’s is sometimes described as a honky-tonk. Others call it a dance hall. How do you make the distinction?

REK: Maybe the indoor part of Floore’s is a honky-tonk, but I would say a honky-tonk is almost always enclosed. And beer only. There’s no liquor, but there’s beer and that crappy box wine and maybe BYOB. There’s a really, really good jukebox. And some kind of crappy corner stage, because what I think of as a honky-tonk, the stage is almost never the focus of attention. It’s more like the bar is the focus. But then there’s an ample dance floor. Those still appear all over the state. I would call Floore’s a dance hall or almost a beer garden. For my money, the honky-tonk to go to would be Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon in Bandera, Texas.

CW: The landscape of the music industry looks a lot different than it did two decades ago when you recorded No. 2 Live Dinner. What’s changed about your approach to music?

REK: It’s hardly changed at all. My strategy is still brute force and ignorance. I’m out there just busting it in. If I see something that I want, I really try to go get it. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I’m always moving toward something that seems to be the right thing. And occasionally, I get a freebie—something comes my way that I didn’t ever expect. I’ve been very lucky, but mainly I’ve survived. As far as changing the way I’ve done things, I really haven’t. I’ve expanded. I’ve got a bigger band now. I can handle delegating and dealing with people. I can do all that stuff better. As far as moving and grooving with the music business, I’m of the mind that you find your way. You create your plan, you stick with it, and let things come to you as you move forward. Because, look, for my money, the entire music industry missed what was going to happen. It was all there, like a big bright map that you’d get at some Holiday Inn that shows you all the places to eat in town. If they could have seen it, in like 2004, they could have done something, but they didn’t. And what happened was the industry was engulfed by the internet, and now [the industry] has no power. I believe we’re on the brink of running out the business of songwriting. But I’m very aware that if I dwell on that too much—I’ve got friends who can get really dark on the subject—it doesn’t help me any. Shit, I still write songs. I still have fun writing songs. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.

CW: As fans would expect of a live album, many of the songs are well-known standards you’ve written throughout your career, but it also highlights some of the new sounds you’ve recently added. There’s a Western swing song [“Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas”], and a track [“Hot Corn, Cold Corn”] from your 2015 bluegrass record Happy Prisoner. What project are you working on next?

REK: It’s called “Tiny Tunes.” They’re Snapchat songs: short songs for short attention spans. They last about ninety seconds. They only have one message, and they don’t repeat the chorus. They don’t bang you over the head with repetition. Maybe it sticks or maybe it doesn’t, but at least I haven’t wasted your time and I haven’t wasted mine. That’s something I’m sort of banging around. I’ve got a bunch of ’em. It started out as a joke, but now I’m sort of getting off on it. And I find out when I play them for people, people dig ’em.

CW: You’ve mentioned that the cattle rustlers in the song “Shades of Gray” are let off hook because the cops are actually out looking for the person responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred earlier that day. What inspired you to address the event in that way?

REK: I was in Oklahoma City the day after the bombing. I saw the stunned look on people. We played a gig, and I got to thinking, “How much chaos is out there? How many people are chasing down the wrong leads? How many rocks are being overturned that don’t need to be overturned?” That kind of event results in everyone being on high alert; there are a lot of mistakes made. I ruminated on that idea, and then came up with this song. The kids [in the song] are thinking that they’re being chased down for stealing some cows, but what’s really happened is something truly catastrophic. I felt like that was my way to acknowledge what happened, but also to look at it from a different perspective.

CW: You and Lyle Lovett were on the cover of Texas Monthly last July. The two of you are currently on tour together, and Lyle joins you for two song on the new record [“The Front Porch Song,” which they co-wrote, and a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’s “T for Texas”]. Y’all have also been friends for forty years, what makes that friendship click so well?

REK: I love Lyle. He has all these qualities that I could never absorb or figure out. I guess I have some of the same for him. Another thing is, we’re not much different than the first days we hung out together. The first week or so we knew each other, we just sort of fell in. A big part of it is, I believe, I think he’s an incredible writer. He has some qualities as a writer that are only matched by somebody like Stephen Sondheim. I think there’s a certain stigma about being from Texas in the world of art, that might be a little bit of it, but I think he should be world famous, not just in the United States. Everybody should know him. That’s my feeling about my friend and his ability. We have a really good time talking and that translates well. We definitely have no fear when we get onstage. It’s not like all of a sudden we have to go into this mode or take on some character. I’ve explained this to people before: we’ll be on the bus, somebody comes to say it’s time to play the show, we’ll be talking on the bus, we’ll get up and go sit on the stage, then we’ll talk about the same thing we were talking about on the bus, we’ll continue that conversation pretty much in an unbroken thread all the way through the show, and then we’ll go back to the bus and keep talking about it.

CW:  Sounds like a hell of a gig.

REK: It is a hell of a gig. The thing is, nobody could really replicate it. It’s not something you find every day, but I’m thankful I did.