I doubt if there's a line that sums up Robert Earl Keen's music better than his own bull's-eye description: "I make Country music for people who hate Country music."
In pointed contrast to the big-hat-wearin', boot-scoot-boogyin', homogenized Pop music swill that passes for Country music on commercial radio these days, Keen still writes songs that tap into the populist vein like earlier Texan masters Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and even Steve Earle once did. A few still do.
Keen's brand of "Americana," for lack of a better name, combines the twang and grit of classic Country with the more literary narrative instincts found in Folk music. His songs are frontier tales for those left stranded in exile by today's more corporate world. His characters range from oil roughnecks and moonshiners to dysfunctional families.
A Texas native as well as a college buddy of Lyle Lovett, Keen has been an icon in his home Lone Star state for over a decade now. In fact, he's such a regional favorite that the Texas governor once declared an honorary Robert Earl Keen week statewide. Not a bad coup for an unassuming songwriter from Houston.
With 12 records and a just-released compilation under his belt and a reputation as a consummate showman, Keen still tours for half of every year.
From a tour stop in Augusta, Ga., he says, "I burn up the road for about 180 days a year, so it's kind of a full-time deal. This is what I do. After 20 years of being married and touring, it became apparent that I wasn't going to be doing anything else.
"But I have two daughters now, and sometimes I'd rather be doing stuff with them. In that sense, it's gotten harder out there."
That sense of family ties and kinship courses through much of Keen's best work, even if it often is of the more twisted variety. From his popular "Merry Christmas from the Family," an ode to blasted family reunions, margaritas and Feliz Navidads, to his showstopper, "The Road Goes on Forever," an outlaw's tale of honor, love and revenge, Keen always offers a colorful cast and reckoning at hand.
So much so, that college kids reveled in his picaresque odes to the good life. He chuckles.
"I had a huge college following for a while, and it was a double-edged sword," he says. "It was fun and I got to play a lot, but they were impatient about not wanting to hear an introspective Folk song. For about five years there, it was just about playing as loud and fast as we could."
The road can be a tough thing to negotiate for veteran musicians. Some of us civilians might be jealous of its glories: the freedom from daily routine, the excesses and the divide, conquer and pillage mentality of many touring units. But the flip side of constant travel can be soul-numbing in its surreal grind, its detachment from the things that anchor you the most.
Consider the old diehard road warriors: the B.B. Kings, the Dylans, the last of an immortal breed who burn the same feverish pace into their senior-citizen twilight, playing out 150 nights a year. You can't help but wonder if it's still a release, an addiction or just the best way of raging against an abiding loneliness. Truth be known, it's probably a bit of each.
Keen says that besides his family, travel most affects his songwriting.
"I'm not much of a writer on the road," he says. "The road is a funny thing. You know it might be a Maslow's hierarchy of needs thing or just general fatigue, but every time I go out I pile up all my books, projects, computer stuff and work on it for two days, and by day three all I'm looking for is a nap and a burger."
On the other hand, Keen keeps this perspective.
"The fact is, though, we do get something done — we play to people every night," he says. "I don't know why, but I do that with the same optimism every time.
"There are two key ingredients to me being what I am: as long as I can remember, I could always write. And when I first got on stage, I was in college, 'cause that's when I learned how to play guitar; it just felt right to me. Doesn't mean that I don't get nervous or scared sometimes. But at my best when I got the timing down you never feel better."
Home for Keen these days is Kerrville, Tex., home of the famed annual Kerrville Folk Festival.
"I used to live in Bandera but moved to Kerrville a few years ago." he says. "It's about a 100 miles south of Austin. I needed a place that has two grocery stores, and not just one. 'Cause I got tired of the one."
It's easy to hear the pride in his voice when discussing his home. Few states have more of a deep-rooted musical tradition than Texas.
"Access to music is so great here," Keen says. "It's not unusual to step outside and see somebody playing guitar on his porch. It's ubiquitous."
He considers the source of it all.
"I believe it goes back to the 19th century with the ranch culture when people had these huge ranches with nothing else around. They'd be stuck out there and would finally ride into these crappy little towns for a hoedown. Music became a big part of life and community for Texans. I think you can trace it back to some of Bob Wills' roots and all those skillet liquor guys."
Even when he writes, Keen can't help but be aware of this wealth of local color.
"I admit when it comes to writing that I'm comfortable creating this backdrop, a kind of Texas scene that puts you in a western frame of mind," he says. "I latched onto Willie Nelson early on and am a big fan of some of his records as well as other singer/songwriter guys like John Prine. I learned from that."
ROBERT EARL KEEN performs Friday at the Madison Theater with guests the Rumpke Mountain Boys.