The idea started with a brush fire, but before long it took on a life of its own. Two lives, in fact: Coal and Flynt Stryker, a pair of mysterious siblings who died in a prison fire, leaving behind a batch of long-lost country recordings. Except that they didn’t. Cole and Flynt never even existed. The Stryker Brothers were nothing more than an excuse for Robert Earl Keen and Randy Rogers to make an album together.
So why did they go to all the trouble?
“I thought it was just funny and cool and interesting. Let’s have a little mystery in life,” says Keen, sitting with Rogers in a soundproof control room backstage at ACL Live in Austin, Texas, one afternoon in December. He’s splayed out sideways in his chair, as though he’s discovered a new plane of comfort at this absurd angle. “It’s surprising how many people were like, ‘Now, what’s going on?’ If you have to explain it to ’em, it’s kind of like having to explain a joke.”
Keen and Rogers are preparing to take the stage for the first — and as far as they know, only — time as the Stryker Brothers. And they likely never expected to get this far. Since they started writing the 13 songs that became Burn Band, released last September, they constructed an elaborate backstory, had friends like Todd Snider, Bruce Robison and Shooter Jennings lie about it on video, and even brought an astronaut with them to tonight’s show. But none of that was the plan when they started.
Back in 2017, the two Texas Country vets had gotten together for the 75th anniversary of John T. Floore’s Country Store, a honky-tonk outside San Antonio. “We set this field on fire and took a bunch of pictures for this thing. Then I started making a bunch of jokes about how we have to make this record called the Arsonists,” says Keen. “My thought was, put it out there and let [the listeners] figure out who it is.”
Existing copyrights meant the Arsonists name was a nonstarter, but Rogers was still onboard to collaborate. “It gives me goosebumps now just thinking about it,” he says, looking down thoughtfully at his crossed legs as he speaks. “When you play shows as much as we do, 150 a year or whatever, to be honest it’s not always the greatest, most amazing thing that people think it is. Creating something with a hero, a guy I look up to so much, was very uplifting.”
“I don’t regularly write when I’m drunk, so I’m going, ‘What did you say? I like that.'”
Convening for a writing session at Keen’s Scriptorium, his secluded songwriting outpost in the Texas Hill Country, they knocked out five songs in a day and a half — when they weren’t busy drinking tequila, riding four-wheelers and starting bonfires. “It was actually like real work at the very end. We’re drinking and eating venison sausage and going, ‘We gotta get one more song!'” says Keen, slurring his speech in imitation. “I don’t regularly write when I’m drunk, so I’m going, ‘What did you say? I like that.'”
The exchange of ideas was still serious work. Keen, who’s made periodic trips to Nashville in recent years for songwriting sessions, found a foil in Rogers. “Randy writes a tighter song than I do, so I felt like I had to find a bit more discipline,” Keen says, enthusiastically. “I always inhabit some character when I’m writing. My thing is so visual, always. One reason we did so well together is [Rogers is] very, very musical and I’m so visual. It’s like I’m looking down at a tunnel with a movie at the end of it.”
In fact, several of the album’s highlights came from Rogers. “Ft. Worth Was a Fabulous Waste of Time” was a song he’d started years ago with the late Guy Clark, while his understated “Quiet Town” is one of Burn Band’s emotional pillars. “Throwing Shade” even required him to teach Keen some new lingo. “I am not the most laid-back individual. I worry too much, I think too much, I plan too much. I’m way out ahead of myself oftentimes,” says Rogers. “[But] Robert gave me a really great compliment, and not many people give me this compliment. He said, ‘I really enjoy your sense of humor.'”
The spirit of those sessions came together most fully on “Charlie Duke Took Country Music to the Moon,” a song about an Apollo 16 astronaut whom Rogers met at a fish fry in the small town of New Braunfels, Texas, where both men live. Now 83, Duke offered him a copy of a tape that a Houston radio DJ made for him to take into space in 1972. It features in-studio performances and personal greetings by Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. “I mean, my heart almost stopped,” Rogers remembers. “It’s just such a unique thing to have possession of. Not many people have the chance to hear these tapes.”
Once the album was recorded — under the supervision of Keen’s longtime producer Lloyd Maines, who picked most of the musicians for the sessions himself — Duke became part of a more elaborate plan for Burn Band. Keen and Rogers wanted to come up with a backstory for the Stryker Brothers, so they enlisted videographer Cameron Gott to conduct interviews with other musicians who made up their own, far-fetched tales. Besides Duke and Maines, however, none of them had any idea who was behind it all.
“The camera would roll and they would just tell these bizarre stories that we didn’t really have any head’s-up on. BJ [Barham] from American Aquarium claimed he was one of our sons,” Rogers says with a laugh. “We were having so much fun with it. We started saying, ‘Let’s turn this into a mockumentary, a 45-minute film.’ At the same time, you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.”
When the album was finally released in September, the hardest part of all was sticking to the original plan of keeping Keen and Rogers’ identities a secret. “My one overriding thought, especially on my part, was, ‘They’re gonna know my voice that quick. It won’t take two seconds,” Keen says, snapping his fingers. But both men held their peace — for the most part — until making an official announcement a couple months later. “I denied it as much as possible. I did get drunk a couple times and tell a few friends, hoping they wouldn’t say anything. They didn’t say anything, as far as I know.”
The ACL Live show proves to be a brief and to-the-point affair, a quick 20-minute set slotted in as an opening act before Keen’s Austin stop of his annual Christmas tour. A voiceover introduces the Stryker Brothers story before the duo, dressed in matching cowboy hats and striped prison shirts, walk out through a pair of doors onstage with the album cover artwork painted on them. They wrap things up with “Charlie Duke Took Country Music to the Moon,” and even have Duke — dressed in a NASA jacket — come out and wave to the audience.
Whether or not the Stryker Brothers will ever reappear in the flesh again remains to be seen. Keen, at least, leaves the door open. But, tall tales or not, Burn Band will remain.
“It’s just all about the music,” says Rogers, as Keen nods in agreement alongside. “I think it speaks for itself. I think the record stands the test of time. I think 10 years from now, somebody’s going to stumble on this record who’s a fan of both of ours and go, ‘Shit, I didn’t even know about this record.'”