- Darren Carroll
- Robert Earl Keen, photographed in Kerrville, Texas on July 4 2016. Photograph © 2016 Darren Carroll
Two decades ago, Robert Earl Keen wanted to commemorate the sound and style of his first 12 years as a recording artist with a live album recorded at John T. Floores Country Store, a renowned Texas venue that has hosted Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Keens album, No. 2 Live Dinner, became the biggest-selling project of his career, ensuring that the road really did go on forever for the celebrated singer-songwriter.
Live albums rarely transcend their status as tour souvenirs, but No. 2 Live Dinner helped define Keens career for many fans and quite a few musicians who took their inspiration from his sharply descriptive songwriting style. As such, Keen decided to revisit the scene of the beautiful crime and bring some cohorts including Bruce Robison, Joe Ely, Cory Morrow, Reckless Kelly, Cody Canada and college buddy Lyle Lovett along to abet him.
Fast forward to 2015, 20 years later; we had just agreed to do a show that was just a celebration of that record, and as we got closer to the date, I said, Shoot; I dont want to just do the same show, said Keen, who performs 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at Rose State College Hudiburg Chevrolet Center, 6420 SE 15th St., in Midwest City. So, I called Lyle and Joe and Bruce and Cory, and we already had Reckless Kelly and Cody Canada in place as performers, and we just had the really great night of music and camaraderie that was truly like Id never experienced before.
Keen captures that night in his recently released album Live Dinner Reunion (LDR). Produced by Lloyd Maines and featuring longtime sidemen like guitarist Rich Brotherton, LDR brings together several generations of Texas music to perform classics like Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee, Corpus Christi Bay, The Road Goes on Forever and This Old Porch.
Texas music is a continuum, and as the guest list on Live Dinner Reunion illustrates, Keen now has his own herd of followers, including Morrow and Stillwaters Canada.
The younguns share stages and philosophies with their elders as they perform with Keen, Lovett and Ely, a legend who performs Keens The Road Goes on Forever about as often as Keen does.
Keen said the live album recording experience transcended what he usually expects from live shows.
I walked away from that show totally on a cloud for months and months and months, he said. Whenever I had anything to complain about, Id think, You know, I did something that Id wanted to do all my life, which was just to play with my friends and have a really good night.
Keen was part of the second wave of radical Texas traditionalists, singer-songwriters who wore their brains on the sleeves of their pearl-snap shirts. Along with Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and Lovett, Keen followed the direction of forefathers like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, trusted their Hill Country instincts and kept Nashville at a highways length.
In 1984, Keen raised $4,500 to record his first album, No Kinda Dancer, a raw, no-frills project that introduced Keen as a writer with an unusual gift for lyrical detail. That grassroots release quickly led to more polished releases such as his third album, West Textures. It also provided a template for a couple generations of Texas singer-songwriters who valued honesty over spectacle.
But that honesty was not always an easy sell. Keen said he had to bust down a lot of doors and browbeat management to get onto stages at some venues like Billy Bobs Texas in Fort Worth places where country dance bands reigned supreme and singer-songwriters who didnt wear cowboy hats were considered suspect.
I got a little better at my pitch, and they got a little more liberal in their thinking about what kind of music is out there, he said.
While Keens music started out at the root level of Texas songwriting, he found the need to grow above the surface. The studio albums that followed No. 2 Live Dinner displayed considerable artistic growth and a penchant for risk-taking, including genre-bending albums like 2001s Gravitational Forces and 2003s Farm Fresh Onions that expanded his appeal to alt-country and alt-rock fans.
Keen is working on a proper studio follow-up to 2011s Ready for Confetti and 2015s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, but he is also recording a series of 90-second songs he calls Short Songs for Short Attention Span Culture. He does not know how or when the songs will surface, but their creation and scheme show that Keen does not let gravitational forces hold back his ambitions.
Theres no subject matter thats off-limits not that its bawdy or surreal, Keen said. One of the first ones that I wrote that I really get a kick out of is called Our Municipal Airport. Its about 85 seconds long, and it just talks about how our municipal airport is really cool. I think Ill have to get to 30 songs to put out a decent-sized record.
Robert Earl Keen with Hot Club of Cowtown
7:30 p.m. Dec. 16
Rose State College Hudiburg Chevrolet Center
6420 SE 15th St., Midwest City
Print headline: Peachy Keen, Robert Earl Keen revisits his landmark success with his Live Dinner Reunion project.