Robert Earl Keen “The road goes on forever …” It’s not always easy to sum up a career — let alone a life’s ambition — so succinctly, but those five words from Robert Earl Keen’s calling-card anthem just about do it. You can complete the lyric with the next five words — the ones routinely shouted back at Keen by thousands of fans a night (“and the party never ends!”) — just to punctuate the point with a flourish, but it’s the part about the journey that gets right to the heart of what makes Keen tick. Some people take up a life of playing music with the goal of someday reaching a destination of fame and fortune; but from the get-go, Keen just wanted to write and sing his own songs, and to keep writing and singing them for as long as possible.
“I always thought that I wanted to play music, and I always knew that you had to get some recognition in order to continue to play music,” Keen says. “But I never thought of it in terms of getting to be a big star. I thought of it in terms of having a really, really good career and writing some good songs, and getting onstage and having a really good time.”
Now three-decades on from the release of his debut album — with well over a dozen other records to his name, thousands of shows under his belt and still no end in sight to the road ahead — Keen remains as committed to and inspired by his muse as ever. And as for accruing recognition, well, he’s done alright on that front, too; from his humble beginnings on the Texas folk scene, he’s blazed a peer, critic, and fan-lauded trail that’s earned him living-legend (not to mention pioneer) status in the Americana music world. And though the Houston native has never worn his Texas heart on his sleeve, he’s long been regarded as one of the Lone Star State’s finest (not to mention top-drawing) true singer-songwriters. He was still a relative unknown in 1989 when his second studio album, West Textures, was released — especially on the triple bill he shared at the time touring with legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark — but once fellow Texas icon Joe Ely recorded both “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Whenever Kindness Fails” on his 1993 album, Love and Danger, the secret was out on Keen’s credentials as a songwriter’s songwriter. By the end of the decade, Keen was a veritable household name in Texas, 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.
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.” As for what they’ll be working on next, well, Keen’s fans probably won’t have to wait very long. Despite the fact that 2014 has marked the 30th anniversary of his first album, No Kinda Dancer, Keen’s primary focus remains — as ever — more on the road still ahead than the road behind him. “We take everything one year at a time,” he says, “but I am hell-bent and bound to make a record this year. I really don’t know what I have in mind as far as what it will be, but what will happen is I will go off to my ‘Scriptorium’ for three or four days to write with no distractions, and I’ll have a record by the time I’m finished. I’m locked into this idea, and I know for a fact that I’m going to get a new record out … unless I get hit by a bus or get run over by my own bus!”