Robert Earl Keen has marked his decades long career with a sharp insight into human nature, infectious melodies and a love of the road. Indeed, one of his first songwriting efforts became his calling card. “The Road Goes On Forever” is a perennial crowd favorite, and has understandably seen its share of cover versions.
As Keen set out on a great double billed tour with Lyle Lovett, I spoke with the Houston native about his perspective looking both back and to the future.
“My two hours on stage are the best part of my days on tour,” enthused Keen. He got his start knocking around Texas, and worked hard to get his first album released. “I persevered to get that Philo album deal. It was more like a workshop, and the label liked it so much the album was moved to its better known Rounder imprint.”
In 1989 his second album West Textures benefited from his tour with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Within a decade Keen was headlining a millennial New Year’s Eve celebration in Austin that drew an estimated 200,000 people. A dozen years later, he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame along with the late, great Van Zandt and his old college buddy, Lyle Lovett.
I asked Keen about his early scuffling days with Lovett, when they were both students at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The fellow Aggies co-wrote “The Front Porch Song,” which both artists would eventually record on their respective debut albums.
In 2013 he and I did some dates together. I love touring with my band, and going out with Lyle is great. It makes for a good show. We are the same buddies as we were back then.”
Keen and I then shifted to a discussion about the myriad changes in the music business. Today the focus seems to be on the song, rather than the album. “I am ingrained in the 10-12 song album format,” admitted Keen. “It is hard to turn my mind off to that format. I try to have continuity in my songwriting. It’s good to have that album structure. The format allows you to experiment, and you can go down a path.”
We then commiserated about the demise of the vinyl album itself. “Yes, I would also devour the visuals on an album,” said Keen. “The double album made pot so popular. And then you would get into discussions about who played what in the band, and go back to the album for answers.”
I then brought up my brother’s idea about a digital tip jar, so that a listener enjoying an artist’s music could leave a few dollars directly. In this day of streaming, songwriters are getting a sliver of what they used to.
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