Gruene is bustling for a weekday in November. Trucks line the streets and folks make their way toward the dance hall that has served as the town’s cultural heart since it was built by newly-arrived German immigrants in 1878. Tonight, over a century later, Gruene Hall is hosting two of the most recognizable names in Texas songwriting: Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. The pair of old friends have been traveling as an acoustic duo since the end of September, and this performance is one of three dates left. Both men tour prolifically—especially Keen, who you can often catch with his full band for a Jackson—but the fans gathered at Gruene have shelled out $95 to see the two play stripped-down versions of their classics and swap a few stories.
The hand-lettered sign at the end of the bar says “Welcome Cowboys,” and judging by the sea of hats it’s an appropriate greeting for this crowd. A notion affirmed by a conversation I overhear between two old-timers in Stetsons about the merits of a recently purchased skid-steer. There’s a fair showing of cowgirls too—chunky turquoise bracelets jangling at their wrists, roses and pearl-hilted pistols stitched up the shafts of their boots.
After sliding the bartender $5 for a Lone Star and stuffing my change in the tip jar, I pass the black-and-white photos of past performers—Bo Diddley, Ernest Tubb, Randy Travis—and framed yellowed newspapers touting good-times with headlines such as “Neal McCoy Plays Nolan Ryan’s 50th Birthday.” Despite the Hall being packed with bodies for this sold-out show, the air feels cool inside, almost autumnal. And by almost autumnal I mean my armpits don’t quite resemble Barton Springs just yet. I make my way to the left side of the stage where the pool tables have been covered and are being used as makeshift seating. It’s unusual to see so many maroon tees this close to Austin, but given the shared alma mater of our musical hosts, it’s not surprising that the “Aggie Mom” and “Aggie Dad” constituency far outnumber their burnt orange counterparts. I slide onto a bit of free wood on a bench between two young couples just as an emcee comes out to announce the main event.
Whistles ring out as the guests of honor take their seats on two chairs, the only objects on stage besides the two guitars flanking Lovett, the three next to Keen, and a small table between them populated by water bottles and two gas-station coffee cups. They get right to business. Lyle leads off with “Cowboy Man,” his frenetic, almost ragtime fingerpicking immediately sends a jolt through an already amped-up audience. Keen follows with the more somber “Goodbye Cleveland,” a nod to the World Series that ended the night before with the Cubs overcoming the Indians in game seven.
“Wasn’t that a fitting song?” Keen prompts his partner. “We got it, ” Lovett replies, pausing before he continues: “You ever been to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame there in Cleveland?”
“No, I haven’t. Have you?”
“Yeah, I’ve been there one time, looked around. It was cool. They had a lot of stuff,” Lovett says.
“Did you complain like Steve Miller did?” Keen asks, referring to Miller’s tirade after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this April.
“No. Nobody talked to me,” Lovett says. “That’s the first prerequisite of complaining: you gotta have someone to listen to you. Otherwise you’re just talking to yourself.”
And with that short exchange, Keen and Lovett have the audience in the proverbial palms of their hands. Lovett plays “I’ve Been to Memphis” next, which, despite the Tennessee reference in the title, name-drops several Texas locales. Cheers erupt when he sings the line, “I’ve been to Houston,” and there’s an even louder raucous after “and San Antonio.” I chalk this up as further proof of my theory that Texans, more than anybody else, love to whoop and holler with a near-psychotic enthusiasm for any passing mention of our stomping grounds, past or present.
Keen stays in the same giddy groove by playing “Goin’ Down in Style,” which chronicles a youth’s joy-ride to the border in his daddy’s stolen Caddy. “Your main character in that song is such a badass. I want to be that guy,” Lovett says after he finishes. “Me too,” Keen replies.
As Lovett launches into “Friend of the Devil,” the guy on my left—perhaps moved by the romanticism of Lovett’s plaintive take on the Grateful Dead classic or emboldened by the growing forest of empty Bud Lights he’s planted on the speaker—goes for a full-on smoochfest with his lady. Not wanting to obstruct any amorous endeavors, I bolt for an open folding chair I’ve spied in the center of the room. From my new vantage point, I’m somewhat surprised to see Keen laying down lead on his guitar. As the frontman of a tight touring band, Keen typically sticks to playing rhythm, rarely getting to show off this side of his talent. And sure, he’s not exactly an acrobat on the fretboard, but his straightforward licks are solid and add a nice layer of depth to the sound.
Between songs, Keen explains how he purchased his guitar with money made from contributing a song to a Merle Haggard tribute album. “As soon as I sent my song in, I got a check for $1,800. I wasn’t even expecting to get paid,” Keen says. “So I thought, ‘cool,’ and I bought this guitar. A few days later, the record producer called me and said, ‘I made a really grave error in accounting.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s perfect, because I bought a really great guitar.'”
Lyle cracks up like it’s the first time he’s heard that story, and so do we, because it is the first time we’ve heard that story. Keen slides his capo to the third fret and every aspiring guitarist who cut their teeth practicing REK songs knows what’s coming. We all sing along to “Corpus Christi Bay.”
They play several more rounds of their most well-known tunes, among them Keen’s “Mariano” and “Dreadful Selfish Crime” and Lovett’s “South Texas Girl” and “She’s No Lady.” Between each couplet of songs the artists exchange quips and reminisce about their college days in Bryan. “We sat right next to each other at graduation from A&M,” Keen recalls, to which Lovett retorts: “Yeah, we were the only two students in the College of Liberal Arts.”
They also remember playing Gruene for two or three souls, sometimes less, early in their careers. But this banter doesn’t have the typical performative feeling of showbiz. Instead, it feels like a glimpse of what it might have been like late at night when Lovett and Keen were first picking guitars together, that old porch creaking beneath them just like the old wooden dance floor does beneath us tonight.
Studying the two men onstage, I’m struck by how different they are. Lovett, dressed in a dark blue blazer, is clean-shaven, his face thin and angular and his hair close-cropped on the sides with those famous curls sprouting up top. When he sings it looks as if gravity is working harder on the corners of his mouth than the rest of him, the notes escaping from a downward crescent. Keen, on the other hand, is full-jowled with a white beard and silver hair feathering out from his short-brim hat. The more expressive of the two, Keen’s eyes often widen for comedic effect as he jokes or makes light of the praise Lovett regularly heaps on him.
Their affection for one another is a major part of the appeal. Lovett, talking about his first date with his wife, says, “I needed to impress her, so I took her to a Robert Earl Keen show,” an event he chronicles in his song “San Antonio Girl.” When Lovett plays it at Gruene, Keen can’t help but grin when the crowd shouts the lines: “Drove to Helotes/Floore’s Country Store is/Out Highway 16 /We heard old Robert Keen.” But just as the two mythologize one another in their songs, they also know how to prod each other in just the right ways. After Keen doesn’t quite nail a riff, Lovett teases, “You sure you’ve never been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” It’s this give-and-take, their ability to cover each other’s weaknesses and build on one another’s strengths, that makes this seemingly disparate duo so cohesive.
Keen finishes “Swervin’ In My Lane” with great fanfare from all those in the crowd who, like myself, consider it the anthem of our daily commutes. Lovett and Keen have played twenty-six songs over the past two-and-a-half hours. Lovett starts into the tale of Jack Boyett, Keen’s old landlord who owned the house on Church Street in Bryan. Anyone who knows almost anything about Keen or Lovett’s biographies is by now familiar with the story of the ornery Boyett, who occasionally conscripted his tenets to work his cattle, and was the inspiration for “The Front Porch Song.” This is the culmination of the night, the essence of forty years of musical collaboration and friendship.
The Hall is silent as Keen takes the first verse, Lovett the second. There is nothing inherently sad about this song, and yet a profound sense of melancholy washes over the room. I look at the faces around me. Some have their eyes closed, mouthing along to the words. Others are smiling with tears glistening in their eyes. Couples standing in the back hold onto each other. It’s incredible how a song like this can transport you, make you miss a time that came before you were born, make you long for your own past.
The last verse Lovett and Keen sing together:
“This old porch is just a long time of waiting and forgetting
Remembering the coming back and not crying about the leaving
And remembering the falling down and the laughter of the curse of luck
From all those sons of bitches who said we’d never get back up.”
There’s such defiance in those words, so much beauty. Surrounded by these Aggies and cowboys or those who wish they were, I feel close to my fellow Texans. I feel lucky to be drawing breath here on a Thursday night in Gruene.
They exit after the song ends and soon chants of “Robert Earl Keen” conjure them back to the stage for an encore. They each play one more of their own songs, then close the show with a duet of Guy Clark’s “Texas-1947,” paying homage to one of their heroes three days before what would’ve been his seventy-fifth birthday.
The lights come up and George Strait’s take on another Clark song, “Texas Cookin'” comes booming over the speakers. As the dance floor clears, a few couples take the opportunity to get in a quick two-step. Wanting to soak up the night a little longer, I order one last beer and head to where the smokers sit on mismatched picnic benches outside.
As is proper in a small Texas town, the water tower dominates the night sky, lit up to remind you exactly where you are. I look for the moon, but it’s too cloudy, and lightning flashes temporarily define the formless grey. By now, the Hall has almost emptied and the tables are mostly abandoned. I’m passively running a hand over the too-smooth bark of a tree when a woman calls out, “That’s an Ashe Juniper, Texas cedar.”
The woman’s name is Linda. It’s her birthday. She’s fifty-nine, but if I’m being honest, looks a few years older, perhaps due to the Camels she chain-smokes. Linda has on three t-shirts: the one she was wearing when she got here and the two she bought at the merch table, one of just Lyle and the other with Lyle and Robert. She points out the two signatures scrawled in Sharpie across the bottom.
Her husband, Bulldog, walks up and introduces himself. They’re both from Abilene originally, he tells me, but now they live in Spicewood “just over the hill from Willie Nelson.” I ask them how they liked the show.
“I was the third person who bought a ticket,” Linda says. “I don’t give a shit if it’s a hundred bucks. It’s my birthday!” Bulldog nods.
Linda and Bulldog are hardcore fans of Lovett and Keen. They’ve seen them both countless times. Bulldog prefers acoustic set-ups like tonight, but Linda’s more partial to the full band. She tells me a story about a time, almost two decades ago, when she traveled to Acuña with her daughter to have a molar pulled. When they arrived, Linda got wind that Keen was playing a concert in town. She had the tooth yanked and headed straight for the Corona Club, where she proceeded to notify a guard that she’d just been to the dentist and would he please have pity on her. She ended up getting to sit right off of the stage.
“I was drinking mescal and Budweiser, eating Valium, right in front of [Keen’s steel-player at the time] Lloyd Maines!” she exclaims. “It was one of the greatest nights of my life.”
Bulldog says it’s time to roll on back to the casa, and I know I should do the same. We shake hands and go our separate ways. As I near my truck, one final wave of sentimentality comes over me, and though I know it’s oh-so cheesy, I turn around and call out, “The road goes on forever!” There’s a pause. Then from somewhere in the darkness, I hear Bulldog’s voice, “And the party never ends!”