In Texas, music is huge. Rivaled only by Nashville, the Texas music circuit boasts some of the strongest support for its musicians in the country. From the Tuesday night “open-mic” to a Saturday night at Gruene Hall, Texans are blessed with some of the finest musicians in the country in every venue imaginable. And of all the musical genres available, none is more popular than that of the Texas Singer-Songwriter.
And arguably, of all the Texas Singer-Songwriters, none are more popular than Robert Earl Keen, Jr.
Performing hundreds of dates every year for almost 30 years, Keen has built a rabid following that now extends across the country and has him playing to packed venues everywhere he goes. While Keen was certainly born to perform, the road to success has involved hard work, determination, and sincere passion. And those traits have brought Robert, his wife Kathleen, and his daughters Chloe and Clara home to Comanche Trace.
“My dad was in the oil business and my mom was an attorney. As for me, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Until I was about 18, I didn’t know there was any other lifestyle other than being out on a rig. There were little ants out there working in the world; human beings worked in the oil business. I didn’t have any interest in following in his footsteps, though. I was more interested in music, art, writing, and happy hour,” Keen laughs.
Keen stumbled upon his sister’s guitar and he found a release for much of his passion. “My sister had an old beat up guitar, and I just picked it up and strummed on it. I got really locked into music with my sister because she was just a big hellraiser. She was the unofficial Houston Foosball Champion. She’s 15, smoking, and playing foosball in all these bars. I’d go in the other room and listen to some guy playing Kenny Loggins. At that point, I just realized this is IT. He could be right in front of me playing guitar, and it was fantastic.”
With guitar in tow, Keen graduated high school and began looking at college. “I had no idea what I was going to do really, so I just took the line of least resistance and went to A&M with totally no plan. I asked my friend (Brian) Duckworth, ‘Where are you going to school?’ So that was the plan, I’d go where he was. So they let me in. It was the last day of enrollment, and once I got in, I did nothing for a year. I was an Undeclared major, but eventually I got in the English department. That’s what was so fun about A&M; they’re not exactly renowned for their English department!” And while in school, Keen didn’t let his studies get in the way of his musical interests. “I got kicked out of school a couple of times. They never really offered any assistance; they just booted you. The second time I got kicked out, I found a pamphlet offering study help, but it said they were meeting at the Dixie Chicken. That really wasn’t what I needed!”
Keen’s first band was called “The Front Porch Boys”, and it was here that Keen was forced to go in different directions. “I had just graduated from A&M. There were always 4 or 5 of us in the Front Porch Boys. Toward the end, we tried to make some money with it. We were making all this effort, but weren’t really getting anywhere. One day I was going to Austin and was going to buy a PA. When I got back, they said, ‘We’ve decided that you’re no longer in the band’. I said ‘OK fine, I’ve got the PA system!’ So I moved to Austin in ’80 and took my damn PA. That’s where I really started enjoying what I was doing.“
Keen began playing around Austin, but still with a need for money, he was forced to find a job. He eventually landed with the Railroad Commission, where he worked for a year and a half. After saving up enough money, Keen sent his parents on a European vacation; while they were on the trip, Keen quit his job and returned his full-time focus to music. “During that time, I was learning the ropes. I was playing anyplace that would let me play. I would just play for tips in these really funky places. But they wanted music, so they’d let me do it, but really what I was doing was practicing. I had kept another job or two, but it was flunkee stuff; construction work, or runner stuff. Heck, I even worked with the IRS. I worked with them for 4 months. It was from 4am-2pm…my boss had to go out in my car and wake me up after lunch each day. Obviously that didn’t work out.”
After a substantial amount of “practice” behind him, Keen released No Kinda Dancer in 1984. About the same time, he went to watch an Austin City Limits show that would change his life. “On December 10, 1984, a big group of us friends went to this Nancy Griffith concert at Austin City Limits. We went there and afterward went to the Texas Chili Parlor. We sat there and drank till the world looked level. I got to talking to Kathleen, and after several hours we looked up and everybody was gone. Well, they threw us out so I asked her on a date, and we went and rode the little train around Zilker Park. Eventually I asked her to move in, and on June 18, 1985, she did.”
At about the same time, Keen had been eyeing a move to Nashville. “I ran into Steve Earle in Austin. Steve told me there were too many pretty girls in Austin, too much cheap dope, and that it was too close to Mexico. It was too easy. So I had to move to Nashville. And what’s funny is that it’s the truth. If musicians don’t get out of Austin, they’ll never make it. So you go to Nashville and you suffer. It’s unbelievable. And then you really appreciate life in Austin. Everybody’s out to become successful in Nashville. Somebody’s going there right now to live the dream. And that’s what you’re competing with every day. Austin has serious talent, but not serious drive.”
Being newlyweds, Kathleen was ready for the adventure. She says, “As for life with Robert, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I was just off to have an adventure with Robert. I didn’t know what to expect, but every day was a party for me. I got great jobs, but the hardest part was not having any money. We never had any. We didn’t pay any attention to it…we just had a great time together.” But while they enjoyed Nashville, things quickly changed. “Robert had gone to do a gig in Lawrence, KS. We came home and our house had been robbed. They took a 6” TV and his jar of pennies, which was pretty much all we had. So he got upset about it and decided we were going to move. Within 4 days, we were gone. The Lo Mein song is about it.”
Robert adds, “So we came back to Austin. Steve (Earle), Lyle (Lovett), and Nancy (Griffith)had all become huge stars. And I was literally digging ditches. I was frustrated – it wasn’t a good time. It started out scary, and nothing was going right. I could just see myself getting stuck in a rut with it. I figured that if I’m going to wash out, I’m moving back to Texas.”
So in 1987 the Keen family moved to Bandera, where Kathleen’s parents operated a nursing home. Kathleen quickly went to work, and Robert became quite depressed at the direction his career was headed. “I sat around for 5 months with my head in my hands. Mary Jane Nalley from Gruene Hall called and said ‘Wanna play?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ She said ‘I’ll let you play in the front part all summer long’. I said ‘I don’t know – I don’t want to overexpose myself. Maybe I’ll play once.’ It was possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever said. I called her back and said ‘I’ll take as much as you’ll give me.’ So I played twice a week. And that’s the thing; while I was in Nashville I was actually getting better. I was practicing and writing, and I began putting together some good songs. So I started getting these gigs, and it started really inspiring me. Shortly thereafter, West Textures was released.”
And with West Textures, Keen’s career took off. West Textures received heavy radio play in Texas and people began to take notice. And as people took notice, they also began showing up for his shows. Keen says, “We put this little gig together and I got there late. The parking lot was completely full and there were people everywhere. I could barely get to the front door, and I asked some guy at the back of the line ‘What’s the deal?’ And the guy said ‘This guy Robert Earl Keen is going to play.’ So I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ There were at least 1500 people there. And it was truly the power of radio. I’d go to some stations, and they’d talk to me and let me play, but they’d never play my stuff. But others would. Some of them would play anything.”
“That was the launching point from me,” Keen continued.“I was playing to 1000 to 1200 people at a time as a solo so I decided to put together the band. From then on, we started going out of stateand we were playing to small audiences, but they started to catch up. About ‘94, we were always playing to at least 300 people anywhere in the country, and in Texas we would push 3000 people.It was just a combo of the times, the radio, and some of my bigger songs.”
And speaking of bigger songs, “The Road Goes on Forever but the Party Never Ends” is as big as they come for Keen. An anthem for college kids across the country, no song had such a huge response nor did more to propel Keen into the spotlight in a much larger scale. Keen describes the song, “I wanted a song that was moving. It had a story, and I just started with this woman that worked with Kathleen and she was with this guy that was real rough. No matter what good luck landed on them, they would manage to screw it all up. The story from there is just the way I wanted it to go.”
Kathleen and Robert began to finally enjoy the successes of their many years of hard work and in 1994 welcomed their first daughter, Clara. 6 years later, Chloe was born. Kathleen says, “Early on I would travel with Robert. We went all sorts of places. We went in his truck with his black lab and argued over radio stations. Over time, I didn’t travel with him at all anymore. He’s gone a lot, and we have a 9th grader and a 4th grader now. Somebody always has to be home.”
That balance of home life and the road began to change the family’s priorities, and the Keens began to look for a change. “We lived out in the country, and it just got to be too difficult. I was gone all the time, and I wasn’t even aware of how hard it was on the family. The kids were ok with it, but Kathleen was really isolated. The line between solitude and isolation is very blurry. So we decided to move, and one day we were in town bringing the kids to preschool. I suggested we check out Comanche Trace. So Kathleen came here and drove around. But we weren’t quite ready to move.”
It only took one incident to change their minds. “One day I woke and Kathleen was shooting feral cats with a .22,” he said.“With that I laughed and said ‘Let’s get out of here’! Kathleen found this really great lady; Leslie was our agent. We set up this meeting with the homeowner of this house and we walked in the door and we went through each room. The agent pointed out the butler’s pantry, and Kathleen and I had this huge argument about whether we needed a butler’s pantry. So I said ‘This must be the house if it has a butler’s pantry’. So we drove back home and made the decision to purchase it.”
And once the decision had been made to move to Comanche Trace, the Keens couldn’t be happier. “We love Comanche Trace. If Chloe wants a lesson, she calls the club and she gets a lesson. If you want dinner you call up the club and even if they’re closing, they’ll set the table for you. Anything that happens is addressed here, and you have no worries. We also have a Christmas party here every year, and we’ve made so many friends. You get to meet people that are just so wonderful, and the entire community of Comanche Trace is so great.”
Happily relocated, the Keens continue their many “adventures”. Kathleen is currently working on her Master’s Degree in Education at Schreiner University. She says, “I hope to teach history at Schreiner. I’m 48, and it’s taken me a long time to get my life together and answer to higher authorities. Schreiner let me in to this program, and I made a 4.0 in my first semester. I wouldn’t think education would be my field, but they offered it, and it made sense for me.”
As for Keen’s daughters, Clara (15) dreams of being a writer and is quite gifted with the upright bass. Chloe (9) is a tremendous violin player and is excelling at school. Robert is working on another album and is performing with the Dave Matthews Band for various dates this year. He also will be performing with the Youth Orchestra on April 8 at the Cailloux Theatre. And as the family’s interests and tastes change, Robert tries to keep his perspective musically. “There’s a point where people lose their relevance as an artist. As long as I’m relevant, and write new songs, and be part of the music of the world and contributed, then I want to play. When the day comes that I’m still playing only for the money or the ego…I wanna quit. I want to be able to let it go. If your art isn’t relevant, you should give back and teach somebody.”