“The road goes on forever …”
It’s not always easy to sum up a career – let alone a life’s ambition – so succinctly, but those five words from Robert Earl Keen’s calling-card anthem do just that.
You can complete the lyric with the next five words – the ones routinely shouted back at Keen by thousands of fans a night “and the party never ends!” – just to punctuate the point with a flourish, but it’s the part about the journey that gets right to the heart of Keen’s legacy. From the get-go, Keen wanted to write and sing his own songs, and to keep writing and singing them for as long as possible.
“I always wanted to play music, and I always knew that you had to get some recognition in order to continue to play music,” Keen says. “But I never thought in terms of getting to be a big star. I thought in terms of having a really, really good career writing good songs, and getting onstage to share a really good time.”
Now with 21 records to his name, a band of stellar musicians, and thousands of shows under his belt, there is no end in sight to the road ahead. In July of 2021, POLLSTAR ranked Keen on its Top 20 Global Concert Tours, proof that he has blazed a peer, critic, and fan-lauded trail that’s earned him living-legend and pioneer status in the Americana music world.
“Americana” style was officially recognized by the music industry in 1998. Robert Earl Keen was the genre’s first artist to be featured on the Americana Music Chart and on the debut cover of the radio trade magazine The Gavin Report featuring Americana. Keen continues to blaze a trail for other artists with Producer, Clara Rose, and their Americana Podcast. In 2019 Americana Podcast launched with the inaugural episode featuring Jamestown Revival and Lucero. The Americana Podcast has furthered the interest in artists Billy Strings, Lori McKenna, Drew Holcomb and I’m With Her.
A Houston native, REK has for three decades been regarded as one of the Lone Star State’s finest true singer-songwriters. He enjoyed a homecoming at the 2019 Houston Rodeo when he performed with college friend, Lyle Lovett, ahead of George Strait to the record-breaking audience of over 80,000 attendees.
Keen was weaned on classic rock and Willie Nelson records. By the time he entered Texas A&M University, he was teaching himself guitar playing Bluegrass and setting his poetic musings to song. These early days are captured in spirit on the Keen/Lyle Lovett co-write, “The Front Porch Song,” which both artists recorded on their respective debut albums, and in Happy Prisoner, REK’s bluegrass recording.
Robert Earl Keen’s journey brought him back to the town of College Station in 2018 to accept the Texas A&M Distinguished Alumni Award. An award given to 281 of Texas A&M’s 488,500 former students since 1962. This honor recognizes those Aggies who have achieved excellence in their chosen professions and made meaningful contributions to Texas A&M University and their local communities.
From the front porch days Keen took the road less travelled, self-financing, and producing No Kinda Dancer. Keen started to make a name for himself winning the Kerrville Folk Festival’s prestigious New Folk Songwriting Competition. Kerrville is the home of The Hill Country Youth Orchestras, a free orchestra for students which Keen has supported with a benefit concert annually. His efforts have raised more than $1,000,000 in support of music education.
After his debut’s release, he eventually moved to Nashville. While in Nashville Keen worked at the well-known Hatch Show Print as a pressman. After Keen’s stint in Nashville, he returned to Texas with a publishing deal, a new label, and a national booking agent. He proceeded to release The Live Album and West Textures, the album that marked the debut of “The Road Goes on Forever” and kicked his career into high gear.
Keen had no idea that his song about a couple of ill-fated lovers running afoul of the law would have the legs it has, but he credits DJ Steve Kaufman of San Antonio radio station KRIO for helping to start the fire. “Steve talked the station into doing sort of a free-form programming format during “drive time.” It was anything he liked, which turned out to be great music and a last glimpse at the influence of the DJ on radio,” he says.
“With an organic boost from Kaufman, I went from playing the front room at Gruene Hall for a max of 150 people to playing a show in San Antonio for 1,500 people. That was a moment that kept me going; because before that, I’d been working for 10 years and had a lot of rejection but very little success.”
When Keen’s third studio album, West Textures, was released, fellow Texas icon Joe Ely recorded both “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Whenever Kindness Fails” on Ely’s album, Love and Danger, the secret was out on Keen’s credentials as a songwriter’s songwriter Robert Earl Keen’s contribution to his craft gained him induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and The Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
REK continued to steer clear of the waters of the country mainstream. His authentic alternative to three-and-a-half minute repetitious radio tunes formed the perfect storm of Keen’s literate song craft, razor wit and killer band which stirred up a grassroots sensation not seen since the ’70s heyday of maverick “outlaw country”.
Two more albums, A Bigger Piece of Sky and Gringo Honeymoon, brimmed with more instant classics like “Corpus Christi Bay,” “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” and “Merry Christmas From the Family”.
The live performance, the show, is an essential experience for REK fans. BMI acknowledged Keen’s contribution as a road warrior in 2015 when they honored him with the inaugural Troubadour Award, followed by John Prine and John Hiatt.
Keen and his band hit the road, going out 180 days a year, to play dance halls, roadhouses, theaters, and festival grounds with diverse crowds of college kids, serious singer-songwriter fans, and plenty of true believers in authentic tales of life. Every music fan should see Robert Earl Keen.