They do things big in Texas. Robert Earl Keen included.
In the 30 years since the release of his debut album, “No Kinda Dancer,” Keen has recorded 18 albums, had his songs covered by the likes of Lyle Lovett, The Highwaymen, George Strait, Nanci Griffith and The Dixie Chicks. He’s played thousands of concerts before hundreds of thousands of fans. He’s so popular in his home state of Texas, he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 alongside Lovett and Townes Van Zandt.
From humble beginnings on the Texas folk scene, Keen has blazed a trail that’s earned him living-legend status in Americana, a style of music that incorporates several native genres, including blues, folk, country, bluegrass and R&B. And though Keen 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) singer-songwriters.
Keen was still a relative unknown in 1989 when his second studio album, “West Textures,” was released, but when Texas icon Joe Ely recorded both “The Road Goes on Forever” and “Whenever Kindness Fails” a few years later, Keen’s credentials soared. By the end of the decade, he was a household name in Texas, headlining a millennial New Year’s Eve celebration in Austin that drew some 200,000 people.
Keen, who grew up in southwest Houston, is characterized by Mark Deming in a 2006 Allmusic review of his “Best” album, as “an archetypal Texas singer/songwriter, someone who can mine both laughter and tragedy from life along the dusty margins of life in the Lone Star State...”
He honed his craft on the road at an early age. An avid reader and a sharp student in high school, he majored in English literature at Texas A&M. But it was his sister who introduced him to the music scene.
“My sister was a couple years younger than I was, and she was like the world-champion Foosball player of downtown Houston,” Keen explained in a 2011 cover story for LoneStarMusic Magazine. Keen would accompany his sister to the bars where she played, many of which featured singer-songwriters playing both covers and original tunes. He started playing guitar by teaching himself to play classic country covers.
He graduated in 1980 and began writing songs and playing with friends including childhood friend Bryan Duckworth, who would become fiddle player in his band, and Lyle Lovett, with whom Keen would jam on the front porch of a house he was renting. The pair co-wrote “The Front Porch Song” based on those sessions, and both recorded the song on their debut albums.
Post-college years saw Keen in Austin, playing the nightclubs and music venues. In 1983, he won the prestigious New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival. A move to Nashville failed to produce mainstream success, and after nearly two years he returned to Texas where he released two more albums and built his fan base as part of a triple-bill tour with Texas songwriting legends Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
Keen’s signature anthem, “The Road Goes on Forever,” made its first appearance in 1993 when Joe Ely recorded the song along with another Keen song, “Whenever Kindness Fails.” The following year’s “Gringo Honeymoon” (whose title track and light-hearted “Merry Christmas from the Family” also became fan favorites and live staples) and 1996’s “No. 2 Live Dinner,” cemented Keen’s reputation as one of the Americana scene’s most popular live draws.
Keen wasn’t thinking big when he set out to make a career as a performer. Maybe it was the Texas in him.
“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 said. “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.”
Keen and the band bring the good times to The Paramount on Saturday, June 7, with up and coming singer/songwriter Andrea Davis opening the show. Tickets are $26.50-$50 at the box office, 370 New York Ave., Huntington, or go to paramountny.com.