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‘Texas is just in me’: Americana legend Robert Earl Keen reflects on retiring from touring after 41 years

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Melanie Nashan
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"The business of being on the road took up about 80% of my life," says Robert Earl Keen. "I just never had really any real life as far as for myself or for my family. I wanted to at least have, you know, where I’m still up and moving around, I still wanted to have that connection and make that the priority in my life."

“The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”

For generations of Texans, when singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen sang about it, it seemed almost like a promise, even if everyone knew it was just too good to be true.

And so it was bittersweet as accolades poured in prior to Keen’s final concert of his World Tour of Texas recently. After 41 years on the road – some 20 albums, songs like “Feelin’ Good Again,” “Corpus Christi Bay,” “The Front Porch Song” – the realization is slowly sinking in among fans of the Houston-born Americana music legend that the road may not go on forever, after all.

On his decision to retire from touring, Keen said that, having seen other entertainers go way beyond their prime, he never wanted to be just a shadow of himself.

“I thought that that was no way to leave your audience or leave yourself, you know – that thought was with me from the time I was a little kid,” Keen said. “And I felt like I was starting to slip a little bit. I felt like I was just not as excited about it. And it was a lot harder than it had been in the past. And I didn’t want to get to the point where it was way too hard to stop. I wanted to stop when I was still, you know, feeling it and being excited about it.

“I finally realized, kind of almost like an epiphany: I woke up in my bunk in December of last year while we were doing some Christmas shows. And I was thinking about this movie “Training Day” with Denzel Washington, and there are a couple of scenes in there where he gets right in somebody’s face and he says, “Make a decision, make a decision.” And I thought, yeah, I have to make a decision. So I just kind of ran through my calendar in my head of what I had to get done in the next few months and decided, okay, the fourth of September, that’s it."

In a speech last month at his final tour stop in Helotes, after being presented with a proclamation from the Texas Music Office, Keen noted that Nanci Griffith had been a mentor to him.

“I don’t want to overstate it, but she was really like an angel for me,” Keen said. “Because she would come in at times – and I just thought I was, you know, stopped dead in the water – and she’d say, ‘You know, I just recorded one of your songs; are you going to make a record? I was going to sing on your record.'”

So Griffith sang on his record. She also took Keen on tour and sat down with him a few times to tell him where she was playing nationally, which helped him create his own map to play outside of Texas.

“She never did anything to ask for anything in return. It was always just out of her own generosity. I was so happy to be part of that,” Keen said. “She helped me in every way – in a musical sense, and just sort of making me feel more confident about who and what I was.”

Keen said he’s always had an ability to write specifically rhyming poetry, from the time he was 6 or 7 years old. When he started playing guitar, it was a perfect match.

“I could play this guitar and I can, you know, write these little poems or these little rhymes and make it into a song,” he said. “So, you know, I dabbled with that for a while, but by the time I got where I recorded things, I was really locked into the whole world of songwriting and making songs match the music. And that was something that came relatively easy for me.”

Keen has also never believed in following rules about what a song should be.

“I still, like, experiment with just whole different setups of songs, you know, not just a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus kind of thing. It would be like, full-blown songs that had no rhyme whatsoever. Or here’s a song that only works with the hook over and over that’d be more like a Dylan-esque sort of thing.”

Keen said that, in today’s country music landscape, the loss of great independent stations has led to a small number of decision-makers who put songs on the radio with very strict guidelines about what those songs say and how they sound.

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Melanie Nashan
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“Thematically, what’s going on in country is just: ‘Here’s my truck; here’s my girl, and man, my girl is a queen. And that’s the best thing ever. And I love this town, and I love this state,'” he said. “It’s all about this sort of positive, not-exactly-truthful sort of theme that they’re presenting. But if you’re an artist and you’re a songwriter, if you’re not writing towards that, that will not get on the radio. So it’s too strict; the boundaries are too tight. And that’s why we’re hearing the same old stuff over and over.”

Had this been the case once upon a time, Keen’s not sure he’d have a career – but he says that, as it is, he wouldn’t have a career without non-commercial stations all over the U.S.

“And that’s because I was just truly an outlier. And that never did bother me; it all worked for me. And those stations still exist and there’s still that going on,” he said. “In Texas, what’s happened is, as far as I understand now, there’s a ton of radio stations that are playing exclusively Texas music. So it’s created its own market, and it’s working for all these guys. However, to get outside of that, as soon as you say that, you know, ‘I’m doing all this great stuff in Texas,’ they kind of start turning their head a little bit on you, and they kind of go, ‘Oh, yeah, right. That’s great to hear.’ You know, it’s not always a boon to say that you’re a part of the Texas movement, except for the fact that within this state they’ve created enough of a market where people really make a living and they can play, you know, to the end of time here in this state. Getting out of the state, I see a lot of them struggle. I mean, they’re doing better than they were. But it takes a lot of work to get out there.”

As longtime fans know, Texas plays a prominent role in Keen’s music. He says he has a great love for the state as it is, geographically and culturally.

“There is really no end to variety of people and topography in this state. And for a writer, you need not go any further than this,” he said. “Someone was asking me yesterday about why, if I went out all the time and went all over the United States and played, why did I always write about Texas? And my answer to that was, I always create a backdrop of Texas because it’s just in me. I like to start with the backdrop – some kind of airbrush painting almost of, you know, whatever place that I think of that I’ve been in the state – and then I put in characters and I make them start moving. Now, the characters can be from anywhere, but the the backdrops are always this state.”

The road crisscrossing Texas and beyond has ended for Keen. But how about the party?

“With me, absolutely not. The party will never end,” he said. “I’m not retired from playing shows. But the business of being on the road took up about 80% of my life. And that wasn’t just out there on the road – that was when I’d come home, that would be working towards the next tour or working towards the Christmas show way down the line. I just never had really any real life as far as for myself or for my family. I wanted to at least have, you know, where I’m still up and moving around, I still wanted to have that connection and make that the priority in my life.”

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While he may no longer be touring, Keen’s got plenty of projects on the horizon, from his Americana Podcast: The 51st State to three records planned for release in the next year: a live album from his final show at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, a stripped-down studio record of songs he loves, and the Western Chill album with his band, including a graphic novel and songbook – “it’s what I call my Hill Country multimedia project” – that has been in the works for a couple of years. And don’t forget about songwriting at his ranch in Kerrville.

“I’ll always write songs. I’m writing songs and I built this video studio in the last couple of years, and I will do some streaming here pretty soon. I have no lack of things that I’m doing nor I want to do,” Keen said. “Most of what I’m looking forward to is just getting back to, you know, sitting down and writing and not always doing things on the fly. Getting back to reading like I used to – I got where I just almost couldn’t even finish a book anymore. So I’m back to, you know, a stack of five books next to my bed now. And, you know, hanging out with my wife, which I really enjoy; we’ve been together for 36 years. It’s great to just not be on the run and not going, ‘see you later’ or ‘hi, how’s it going?’ and then, you know, be out the door. Just sitting and being is enough for me right now.”

And in announcing his intention to retire from touring eight months before his final show on the road – something he says he hasn’t seen anyone else do – Keen hopes he’s created a blueprint for fellow musicians to follow in the future.

“There’s a lot of them that really don’t know how to get out. And I feel like I’ve really created some kind of map to say, ‘you know, I can do this,'” he said. “The whole idea of going on for another eight months was to, you know, play to all your fans and not just disappear from the planet. And that was one of the things that I really feel like I achieved. And it was in an effort to, you know, help other people.”

Keen will continue to pay it forward – and is even toying with the idea of creating a kind of collective to help other artists.

“I feel that I should be able to turn around and help everybody. I have made every mistake anybody’s ever made. I have fought every fight that anyone could ever have,” he said. “And so I do have a great sense of where people are going right, and where they’re going wrong. You know, I’m not trying to change anybody’s life. I’m just saying that there are some real easy ways to fix some problems that people don’t even realize exist.

“You know, that’s my role in life. I mean, I think that’s everybody’s role in life. You get to a certain point, you can consider yourself an expert, guru, whatever you want to call yourself. But I think you turn around and help people. What else are you going to get out of this? Just a bunch of self-aggrandizement? I mean, that doesn’t help me. I don’t even like it when people are, like, overly complimentary. I think in terms of like, what should you do towards the end of your life to make it worthwhile? And I think that the thing to do is like help people in the same area or the same, you know, job description that you’ve been in all your life.”

To hear more from Robert Earl Keen, check out an extended interview in the audio player at the top of this story.

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Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.