To the Houston Beat

February 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Features

Now 60, Robert Earl Keen still turns to his Texas roots to make memorable music—and maybe some fried venison along the way.

by Rima Jean

The name “Robert Earl Keen” is indelibly written in the minds of every Texan who came of age in the ’90s. To me, a San Antonio native, Keen’s music is synonymous with homecoming dances and riding to school in the bed of a pickup truck. It’s as homegrown as breakfast tacos and Lucchese cowboy boots. No. 2 Live Dinner came out my senior year in high school, and it was recorded live at the Floores Country Store in Helotes, just outside of San Antonio. That album, particularly “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” got lots of airtime on my rides to school…

Sometimes I can’t believe those days are gone

Most of my friends back then have moved along

One’s in Hollywood one’s a millionaire

Some are gone for good some still livin’ here

Me I’m just the same lost in a crowd

Lookin’ for the rain in a thunder cloud

I have moved around but it don’t matter though

One thing I have found there are just two ways to go

It all comes down to livin’ fast or dyin’ slow

For most teens like myself on the cusp of adulthood, Keen’s music was its lyrics—the way each song told a story that was both personal and timeless. They spoke of very basic human experiences, about leaving home, losing a girl, coming back home, finding the girl again. Today, Keen’s music has evolved, but still holds its fans rapt with each relatable message, each familiar tale.

A Houston native, some of Keen’s most enduring childhood memories are of his experiences in the city. He remembers the streets of Bellaire flooding during Hurricane Carla when he was a young boy, he remembers the excitement of going downtown to visit his parents’ offices; his mother was an attorney and the third female graduate of the University of Houston Law School. “My parents would hand me five bucks, and I’d go wandering the underground tunnels, which I knew quite well. I knew where everything was, like the original James Coney Island and all the places to find good barbecue,” Keen recalls.

As much of a city kid as Keen was, he also got a taste of the country life when he would visit his family’s home away from home between Columbus and Fayetteville, which at the time, was very rural and quaint. “I loved it. It had a totally different culture before it became what it is now,” Keen says. “These people spoke with heavy Czech and German accents. I went squirrel hunting with friends, polka dancing and all that. I was a city brat and a country kid at the same time.”

Keen spent his teen years in Sharpstown before leaving for Texas A&M University in College Station, where he began writing songs and creating his unique sound—which he describes as a “mash-up of country and folk and bluegrass”—and the rest is pretty much history. It was at Texas A&M where he met Lyle Lovett and future bandmate, Bryan Duckworth. “My music was never part of the pop culture. My world was very small. I liked playing the guitar and listening to folk music, so I was a fan of all the local [talent] like Shake Russell, Eric Taylor and Nancy Griffith. That stuff had a huge influence on me. It was music you could see and touch.”

Being able to “see and touch” the music is a must for Keen. “Setting is so important to me when I sit down and write a song, and the setting I know is Texas. If I write music about settings that I know, I don’t really have to think hard about the narrative. The message kinda floats in afterward.”

Even after being inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 and topping Billboard’s bluegrass charts multiple times, Keen hasn’t rested on his laurels. He recently released his album Live Dinner Reunion in late November in honor of the 20th anniversary milestone celebration of the first “live” REK album (No. 2 Live Dinner). Keen just concluded his Merry Christmas From The Fam-O-Lee 2016 Christmas Tour through Texas and parts of Oklahoma and Tennessee. Rumor even has it that Keen might be playing in Houston around the time of Super Bowl 2017…

As if that wasn’t enough, Keen supports Hill Country Youth Orchestras, the only free youth orchestra in the United States. Every year, he puts on a concert from which all the proceeds go to the organization’s Scholarship and Endowment fund. With Keen’s help, they’ve raised more than half a million dollars since the group’s inception. “It’s totally nonexclusive and completely free,” Keen proudly offers. “Any child can learn to play an instrument.”

And what does the ever-busy Keen do in his downtime? “I like to cook,” he admits. “The newest dish I’ve made up is Madras shrimp. I got into cooking Indian food this summer.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “Curry with lots of shrimp in it.” And what else does he cook? “Southern dishes,” he replies. “Fried venison and mashed potatoes. I can do that in my sleep.”

What could be better than enjoying some “Keen cuisine” (with a bottle or two of Robert Earl Keen’s Front Porch Amber Ale) while listening to Live Dinner Reunion and enjoying the company of friends and family?

Keen laughs heartily. “Not much else, I guess.” H

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