Robert Earl Keen ought to be sick of Christmas. He hasn’t had a break from the holiday for the past 24 years, thanks to “Merry Christmas From the Family,” a wildly irreverent song that’s taken on such a life of its own that he has trouble sticking to his rule of playing it only after Labor Day. But you won’t hear Keen complaining about it.
“I’m not going to get out of here alive without playing the Christmas song, so I might as well make it bigger,” says Keen, as he relaxes on a bench outside a practice space in Austin, Texas. His red cheeks are framed by a bushy, pepper-gray beard and a beret that he wears cocked and turned backwards on his head. “I feel lucky enough to write songs and have people request the songs I write. Why would I want to turn my back on that?”
Keen, who lives on a ranch near Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country, made the two-hour trek into town on this November day with his daughter Clara to rehearse for his Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree. The annual holiday tour, first held in 2012, is the latest spinoff of “Merry Christmas From the Family,” joining a sequel song, a coffee-table book, and numerous covers that came before it. Montgomery Gentry earned a Top 40 country hit with their version in 2001.
“I live for hearing his Christmas song. I never go through the Christmas season without listening to it at least once,” says Nanci Griffith of Keen’s 1994 original, a Clark W. Griswold-worthy satire of family dysfunction and drunken, intolerant in-laws. “It’s just funny and you can relate to it personally because it’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re all stuck here together.'”
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Each holiday tour features a different theme. The 2017 run saw Keen’s band members, most of whom have been with him for 15 years or more – the longest serving, guitarist Rich Brotherton, has logged nearly a quarter century – play Christmas-costume dress-up to sing covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Dwight Yoakam. Kitschy props that reference lyrics from “Merry Christmas From the Family” adorned the stage, like the “box of tampons” that evokes an awkward sing-along and a pack of Salem Lights.
“It escalated to where we could play as much in December as we wanted to. But it was always strange because it wasn’t like a regular show. Pretty much all the people were waiting for that one song,” says Keen. “After a while, we got to thinking: ‘We got to do something more than this. We got to have more fun ourselves.'”
But Keen is far from some novelty holiday act. While he’s not a well-known figure, he has amassed a passionate fan base of rednecks, hippies, frat boys and country scholars who swoon over his real-life lyrics and give-no-shits attitude. George Strait is a fan and has tapped him to open some of his Las Vegas concerts. He’s also cut Keen’s tracks, as have the Dixie Chicks, the Highwaymen and Joe Ely, among many others. To Keen’s fans, his songs “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon” and “The Front Porch Song” are American classics, helping make him arguably the most important figure to the formation of Red Dirt music as we know it. Still, for all the acclaim and influence, he’s never quite fit into the country music ecosystem.
“The guys who quote-unquote ‘made it’ from Nashville can’t hold Robert’s guitar pick,” says his longtime producer Lloyd Maines, whose daughter is Natalie Maines. “He’s a smart guy who could smell a rat, but he never conformed to the business norm. He really wanted to stay true to what he was doing, and also true to his fans.”
That helps explain why Keen, a 62-year-old singer-songwriter who’s never had a hit song or album, is such a respected figure in the country music world. In his home state of Texas, his career is the stuff of lore, especially on the campuses of major universities like Texas A&M, his alma mater. No one tells that story better than Keen – except, perhaps, for Lyle Lovett.
“My relationship with Robert Keen is unlike any relationship I have with any human being on the planet,” says Lovett. Like Keen, he was born in Houston, and the two men have known each other since 1976, when Lovett — two years Keen’s junior — was a first-year Aggie in nearby College Station. “Robert makes me think of things that I wouldn’t think of if I were not in a room with him, and I like to think I have the same effect on him.”
When they met, Keen lived in a house near campus, where he would sit on the porch with friends and play bluegrass songs. Lovett, who booked shows for the student union, rode past each day on his bicycle. A fast friendship was formed, and in the spring of 1980 – the last they spent in College Station – they penned “The Front Porch Song” together, inspired by those informal jam sessions.
An elegiac portrait of a real-life diner, abandoned movie theater and eccentric landlord, “The Front Porch Song” was started by Keen but finished by Lovett after his friend first played it for him. “I felt Robert painted these beautiful pictures, but I thought to myself, ‘You know, Robert left himself out of this song.’ My verses were about including Robert,” says Lovett. His new ending transformed it into a defiant, coming-of-age ballad. “I’m as proud of that last verse as any I’ve ever written,” he says.
“Somebody down in San Marcos asked a friend, ‘Are you a hat act or are you Robert Earl Keen?’ I knew I’d made an impact at that point as a songwriter”
Both men would record their own versions of the song, with Lovett’s slower, more somber version – dubbed “This Old Porch” – appearing on his major label debut, Lyle Lovett, in 1986. By that point, Keen had relocated to Nashville at the suggestion of Steve Earle, whom he’d met while he lived in Austin after graduating. But being hemmed in by the Music City way of life wasn’t a good fit, and after 22 months Keen headed back to Texas with his wife Kathleen.
“I thought a good song was a good song. I didn’t realize there’s such an incredibly rigid format to the world of country songwriting,” says Keen. “I wouldn’t say that I was not disappointed – I was. But at the same time it didn’t change anything about how I attacked it, because I felt like somewhere inside me there were these things that needed to come out this way and not some other way.”
Today, Keen would fit right in with the world of Americana music – he says he identifies more with it than with country – but no such category existed in the late Eighties. So he was left to forge his own path, working with what he considers to be a limited arsenal. “I wish I were more musical than I am,” Keen admits, with a typical mix of candor and self-deprecation. “Almost everybody who does my songs seems to do [them] better than I do.”
Influenced more by literature than by other songwriters, Keen’s storytelling often unfolds through flowing verse rather than conventional song structure, punctuated by his comedic timing and knack for narrative detail. “The thing that stands out for me the most is that he tells the truth,” says Griffith, who included his song “Sing One for Sister” on her 1987 breakthrough, Lone Star State of Mind. “His songs sound like they wrote themselves. They don’t sound like somebody sat around and labored over them, they just sound like they were always there.”
Joe Ely came up alongside Lone Star songwriting legends Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and he doesn’t hesitate to place Keen in their company. They first met in the early Nineties at a show where Keen sang “Whenever Kindness Fails” and “The Road Goes on Forever,” the anthemic tale of a drug-dealing fuck-up who comes to the rescue of a small-town waitress. “I was going into the studio that week and I said, ‘Man, I hope you weren’t planning to record those songs real soon because I’m going to do ’em next week,'” Ely recalls. Both tracks appeared on Ely’s Love and Danger album.
Those storytelling talents extend to Keen’s onstage banter, a key part of his live shows. Sprinkled in with his anecdotes are plenty of jokes, often about Aggies and their bitter rivals at the University of Texas in Austin. “Three Aggies walked into a building; you’d think one of them would’ve noticed,” goes one of his many one-liners. As Keen built his reputation during the Nineties, college students were a key part of his business. “I wasn’t in a fraternity – I didn’t know what a fraternity was. I just caught on with those people,” he says.
Before long, promoters and other artists were looking to capitalize on the niche he’d carved out on the Texas country circuit, then largely the domain of dance bands rather than singer-songwriters. “Somebody down in San Marcos asked a friend, ‘Are you a hat act or are you Robert Earl Keen?’ I knew I’d made an impact at that point [as a songwriter],” he says. His concerts became so popular that he’s recorded seven live albums to go with his dozen studio LPs, including 1996’s No. 2 Live Dinner, his most well-known record.
“Those guys who came along patterned themselves right after Robert. Pat Green would do Robert covers in his live show, and other people would too,” says Maines, whose first production credit for Keen was No. 2 Live Dinner, on which he also played pedal steel. “At the end of the day, Robert is still the king. I think nobody would argue with that.”
Randy Rogers, who first heard Keen while attending Texas State University in San Marcos, agrees. “I don’t know that there’s a bigger influence on any of us,” he says. “He opened Pandora’s box for me… Playing music was possible when I looked at Robert.” Rogers, who’s shared festival bills and toured with Keen, says that their personal interactions have only added to his respect for him. He points to one particular occasion where he invited himself onto Keen’s tour bus after a show. “Three weeks later, I get a card in the mail, a handwritten note from Robert that says, ‘Hey Randy, thanks for stopping by. Great hang,'” he recalls.
While Keen may not be a household name in most corners of the country, his fan base extends well beyond Texas. “It never fails when I go play in Nashville that I have some people I know there come to my show and be totally freaked out that all the people know the words to my songs. I think, ‘Well, don’t people know the words to songs?’ But apparently I have something unique there,” he says. Once again, Keen rationalizes that enthusiasm by poking fun at himself. “I think my voice never intimidates anybody,” he deadpans. “People think, ‘Yeah, I can sing like that.’ And they can!”
Lovett has gotten to see that rapport firsthand in recent years through the joint tours he and his old friend undertake. “He has a wonderful audience. People appreciate him,” Lovett says proudly. The tours were started at Lovett’s behest in 2013, the year after they were inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame together. He and Keen also shared the stage last year with George Strait, at Strait’s Hurricane Harvey relief show in San Antonio last September and at his Las Vegas residency in February. (They’ll both rejoin Strait for his Vegas shows this December.)
Even the Nashville establishment has come around to giving Keen recognition. In 2015, the same year that he released Happy Prisoner – a covers collection that featured Lovett and Natalie Maines – he received the inaugural BMI Troubadour Award for songwriting. But at least one lifelong ambition still hangs over Keen, which has led him to stay busy as a co-writer in search of an elusive hit. “I felt bad that my parents died before they saw me have any real success. I always wanted to have a real song on the radio, like a hit song,” he says.
Yet to measure Keen’s success by such conventional methods is to miss the point. A homespun outlaw, he carried on the renegade spirit of the Seventies by sidestepping the establishment rather defying it. Though he flirted with the majors, first with Arista in the Nineties and more recently with UMG’s Lost Highway imprint, Keen’s grassroots following prefigured an era where artists would have to make do without label support. In turn, he brought to life his home state with compassion and humor, peopling his songs with characters as vivid as they were flawed and funny. His music, rooted throughout in folk and bluegrass, not only expanded the palette of Texas country but also laid the groundwork for the nascent Americana scene. There may be no better illustration of that fact than the array of musicians from outside the country world who have recorded Keen’s songs, including roots heroes Gillian Welch, Todd Snider and Shawn Colvin.
Lovett certainly doesn’t see Keen having unfinished business. “Robert Keen has gotten to do what he wants to do. I look at his career and think all the time that when I met Robert Keen in 1976, I would have never dreamed that in 2018 I’d still be getting to play music, that both of us would be,” he says. “I look at everything he’s done with great admiration.”
As he contemplates another round of holiday shows, with Clara seated beside him, Keen can’t help but agree. “I’m at the best level of celebrity in the world. I can go anywhere I want to and nobody ever really recognizes me unless I talk,” he says, his raspy voice booming out into the still autumn air. “It’s what my wife calls ‘playing the Earl card.’ I go, ‘Hi, I’m Robert Keen,’ and [people] go, ‘Oh, OK, nice to see you.’ Then I say, ‘Robert Earl Keen,’ and they go, ‘Oh!'”
Keen has one arm slung behind him on the bench, squinting through the trees into the mid-afternoon sun. His face softens. “It’s just like, man, I’m lucky to still be hanging out here and doing this,” he says. “I feel like everything came full circle in a wonderful way.”