The road goes on forever, and the podcasts never end.
On this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, Chris Shiflett kicks off a new year of biweekly podcasts by sitting down with Robert Earl Keen, whose 18 albums have cemented his status as a modern-day godfather of Texas country. The pair’s conversation was taped during AmericanaFest 2019, with a live audience shouting its approval in the background. Filled with anecdotes about Steve Earle, the Texas dancehall circuit, and the backyard songwriting session that spawned Earl’s signature song, “The Road Goes on Forever,” this is an episode that doubles down on the singer’s Lone Star State roots, without ignoring the role that Nashville also played in his career.
In a crossover premiere, Keen interviews Shiflett on his 51st State podcast today. Listen here.
Below, we’re collected some highlights from Walking the Floor, along with the episode in full.
As the host of Americana Podcast: The 51st State, Keen has spent the past year sharpening his interviewing skills, and the process has made him less sympathetic to the journalists who interview him.
“I realize there’s so much to do it, and you almost can’t do enough, as far as researching someone or listening to their music,” he says of the work that’s gone into his monthly podcast. “When [journalists] ask those innocuous questions — ‘Does the music come first?’ that sort of thing — I go “Yeah, OK, alright; let me just go ahead and click into my automatic answer.”
Now in his early sixties, Keen continues to make a living on the road. Back home in Texas, he craves peace and solitude, both of which help him write new material.
“In general, my life these days is about touring, and it’s about my home life: being home with my family,” he tells Shiflett. “In between, I wash laundry. I do have a place I write out in the country. It’s a building I made in the late-Nineties. It’s about 600 square feet. It’s on the side of a hill and it has this great view, and my wife named it. It’s called ‘the Scriptorium.’ I have a whole lot of books in there, and a bunch of guitars and a couple mandolins. When I really want to sit down and write and get some solitude, I leave my phone at home, and anyone who really wants to talk to me has to come out and find me. And I write in the Scriptorium.”
He relishes playing “The Road Goes on Forever” and rarely tires of receiving requests for the song — although some of his bandmates might have a different opinion.
“I love that song, and I’ll play it!” he says. “There are places where I feel like maybe the band is a little worn out with it.” Keen recalls an anecdote that George Strait’s bus driver told him about a conversation he had with one of Keen’s band members. “He said, ‘I asked him why he quit the band…Was it all the traveling?’ And he said, ‘No, it was the music!'” So I don’t wanna wear out the guys, and I’m [also] aware why people come to the shows. Some of them might just come to the show to hear that song, you know?”
That said, he does occasionally leave the song out of his setlists.
“One time, we played in Lubbock,” he remembers. “It was late, and I had a long time dealing with the load-out. I was the last one out of the building, and when I walked out of the building, there was truly this cowboy dude, with the perfect hat and the great boots and everything. The Wrangler jeans. He had one leg propped up against the building, and he’s smoking a cigarette. I had not done “The Road Goes on Forever,” and he looks at me and goes, “I guess the party ended.”
Joe Ely’s version of “The Road Goes on Forever,” which was released on 1993’s Love and Danger, is Keen’s favorite.
“Joe got a lot of mileage out of the song, but you know, it was just a great version,” Keen explains. “Great playing! And Joe is such a great interpreter. He writes great songs, but he’s a great interpreter of other people’s songs. He did Dave Alvin’s ‘Every Night About This Time,’ and it’s just a knockout. So when he did that, then I thought the song was great.”
It was a snippet of advice from Steve Earle that convinced Keen to (briefly) relocate to Nashville during the mid-1980s.
By 1986, Robert Earl Keen had earned a devoted following in Austin, where he played local clubs and collaborated with likeminded musicians. He was broke, but happy. Even so, he knew his career needed a change, and it was Steve Earle who convinced him to head east. “I’d ran into Steve Earle — not always your best adviser, but still a fun guy and a smart guy,” Keen remembers. “He said, ‘You gotta move up to Nashville and suffer!’ And I said, ‘OK, that sounds good to me! I’d love to suffer!'” Keen and his wife spent roughly two years in Nashville, where they also ran the legendary letterpress operation Hatch Show Print.