Robert Earl Keen

"The road goes on forever ..." (Continued)

  

After that, though, success came in spades. Although he continued to steer clear of the Garth Brooks-dominated waters of the country mainstream, the perfect storm of Keen's literate song craft, razor wit and killer band (more on that in a bit) stirred up a grassroots sensation in Texas not seen since the '70s heyday of maverick "outlaw country" upstarts Willie, Waylon, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Armed with two more albums (1993's A Bigger Piece of Sky and '94's Gringo Honeymoon) brimming with instant classics like "Corpus Christi Bay," "Whenever Kindness Fails," "Gringo Honeymoon," "Dreadful Selfish Crime" and "Merry Christmas From the Family," he began packing dancehalls, roadhouses, theaters, and festival grounds with diverse crowds of rowdy college kids, serious singer-songwriter fans and plenty of folks who, like Keen himself, had been around the Texas music scene long enough to remember Willie's earliest 4th of July Picnics. And the phenomenon was not confined to the Texas state lines. Famed producer and pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely, Terry Allen) helped Keen and his band bottle lighting on 1996's No. 2 Live Dinner, a next-best-thing-to-being-there concert document that remains one of Keen's best-selling albums, and the burgeoning Americana music scene (bolstered by AAA radio stations across the country and magazines like No Depression) embraced Keen as one of its prime movers. In the wake of albums like 1997's Picnic and '98's Walking Distance (both released on major-label Arista), one would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between a rabid Robert Earl Keen crowd at Texas' legendary Gruene Hall and those at New York City joints like Tramps and the Bowery Ballroom. Little wonder, then, that when the songwriter-revering "Americana" style was officially recognized by the industry 1998, Keen was the genre's first artist to be featured on the cover of the radio trade magazine Gavin.


The '90s may have been a boom period for Keen, but his momentum hasn't ebbed a bit since then - nor has his pursuit of continued growth as a writer and artist. If anything, his output from the last decade has been marked by some of the most adventurous music of his career. "Wild Wind," an unforgettable highlight from Gravitational Forces, his Gurf Morlix-produced 2001 debut for the Nashville-based Americana label Lost Highway, captured the character (and characters) of a small Texas town with a cinematic eye reminiscent of The Last Picture Show; but the album's title track also found Keen wryly experimenting with spacey, beatnik jazz. For the freewheelin', freak-flag-flying Farm Fresh Onions (2003, Audium/Koch), Keen and producer Rich Brotherton (his longtime guitarist) took the band into the proverbial garage to knock out their most rocking set of songs to date - most notably the psychedelic rave-up of the title track. Brotherton also produced the more rootsy but equally playful What I Really Mean (2005, E1 Music), but Lloyd Maines was back at the helm for 2009's eclectic The Rose Hotel and 2011's spirited Ready for Confetti (both released by Lost Highway). The later was especially well received by fans and critics alike, with AllMusic's Thom Jurek raving, "Ready for Confetti is, without question, Keen's most inspired and focused project in nearly 20 years." Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, released in 2015, was a straight -ahead "love postcard to bluegrass". This was something Keen had wanted to do for a long time and it was now or never. Keen ranked Billboard's No. 2, 2015 Bluegrass Artist of the year. Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, charted as 2015's Top 5 album at Americana Radio and Billboard's 2015 No. 2 album on the Bluegrass Albums chart.


  

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the milestone album No. 2 Live Dinner, Keen returned to the legendary John T. Floore's Country Store in the Texas Hill Country town of Helotes in 2016 where he recorded his latest project, Live Dinner Reunion, and upped the ante by inviting Bruce Robison, Cory Morrow, Lyle Lovett and a few other friends and fellow Americana and Texas Music stars to sing along. Some 5,000 fans added their voices to the historic occasion. 


 The result, the rousing double-disc celebration Live Dinner Reunion, released in late 2016 on Dualtone Records, an Entertainment One company. The repartee of Keen and the other artists, the crowd's response, the songs and inspired musicianship combine to magically create the album's you-are-there experience. It's these many special musical moments that propel Live Dinner Reunion into the stratosphere of live albums.

 

Though Keen has played sold-out theater dates with icons such as Willie Nelson, the lion's share of his concert schedule still finds him playing full-tilt with his seasoned road and studio band: Brotherton on guitar, Bill Whitbeck on bass, Tom Van Schaik on drums, and Marty Muse on steel guitar. "I've been with this band for 20 years now," Keen says proudly. "I used to think that was just sort of an interesting fact, but now it's almost a total anomaly - that just doesn't happen much. I always felt like once you lock into the right bunch of people, you try to do the best by them that you can. So we've been able to stay together a long time, and I think one thing that makes it worthwhile for people to come see us as an act is the fact that it's not like we're trying to work it all out onstage - we've already worked everything out."

REK has recently had the honor of performing with fellow superstars George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton and Lyle Lovett on the Hand in Hand benefit telethon which raised more than $55 million for hurricane relief efforts and will be featured on a benefit concert hosted by the former presidents of the United States in October. In addition to the many other music legends and stars he’s shared the stage with, Keen has worked with Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Eric Church, Gary Clark, Jr. and more. He was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012. In March 2015, Robert Earl Keen was recognized as the first recipient of BMI's official Troubadour Award. Keen is an active member of NARAS and was invited to be a participant in the prestigious "Grammys On The Hill" where he sang the National Anthem at the opening ceremony and was a member of the delegation that lobbied US Congress to support musicians' rights, specifically the "Fair Pay for Fair Play Act".


An Evening with Robert Earl Keen

1894 Grand Opera House

 Saturday, August 25, 2018, 8pm