By Mike Ethan Messick
Few artists are as central to the birth and sustenance of a music scene as Robert Earl Keen is to the independent-minded, lyrically-driven, locally-sourced blend of country, folk, and rock that has come to define the Texas strain of Americana music over the last two and a half decades or so. And few live albums have done as great a job of capturing the full essence of an artist, his crowd, and the excitement of a burgeoning scene than Keen’s legendary No. 2 Live Dinner, recorded at the historic Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas, and released 20 years ago. Equal parts funny, folksy, and moving — and seasoned liberally with hot solos from a top-drawer road band and extended stories from one of music’s greatest onstage monologists — it’s a landmark album that still sounds as exciting, fresh, and relevant today as it did way back in 1996. Just like Keen and his band still are themselves two decades, another 10 albums, and thousands of more shows down the never-ending road.
For proof of the later, just grab a copy of the brand new (out this Friday) Live Dinner Reunion, recorded in front of 5,000 ecstatic fans at the same Floore’s Country Store earlier this year. The 17-song, double-disc set — featuring guest turns and cameos by Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Bruce Robison, Cody Canada, Cory Morrow, and Cody Braun of Reckless Kelly — serves not just as a star-studded celebration of No. 2 Live Dinner’s 20th anniversary, but of Keen’s entire career to date. It’s a tour-de-force landmark in its own right that captures all of the things generations of fans love about of one Texas’ truly flagship artists.
Two weeks before the new album’s release — and the night before Keen’s sold-out duo show with Lyle Lovett at Gruene Hall — we caught up with the Houston-born, Kerrville-based songwriter via phone to talk about No. 2 Live Dinner, its super-sized sequel, and all sorts of other good stuff that’s been on his plate of late.
So with Live Dinner Reunion, you made a sequel to one of the most successful and beloved live albums in Texas music history. Was there a sense of déjà vu, or did it all feel brand new to you?
I’d definitely say there’s kind of a feel of space-time continuum going on there. It wasn’t just a one-off, of course; I’ve been playing at Floore’s since the early ’90s and played there a lot since I made No. 2 Live Dinner, but I had not put together one of these deals where it’s just “come one come all!” The others were just regular shows, but Mark McKinney — who’s the owner/operator out there at Floore’s — called me and said, “maybe we should do a 20 year reunion?” I said “great,” and he wanted to beef it up so he called the Reckless Kelly guys, Cody Canada … they were all on board. And then about a week before I thought, what am I gonna do? Don’t want to just play the same old songs, right? So I just started calling some friends. I called Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Cory Morrow, Bruce Robison, and my old bandmates Bryan Duckworth and Mark Patterson, all that. And they all came! It was sort of off-the-cuff, and what was so rejuvenating and life-affirming was that we were all there and everybody just had a great time. You know, almost everything in the music business nowadays feels manufactured, but this wasn’t manufactured. It was just my friends and a big night of music and camaraderie. Man, it was awesome.
You asked both Bryan Duckworth (fiddle) and Mark Patterson (drums) back to sit in on a few songs, but Rich Brotherton (guitar) and Bill Whitbeck (bass) never left the family. And of course a lot of the songs you played on No. 2 Live Dinner are still as popular with your fans today as they were 20 years ago. So aside from all of the new songs that have been added into the mix, what do you think has changed the most between now and then, as far as how you approach a big live show?
Well, there’s just some of that social science Malcolm Gladwell stuff about getting your 10,000 hours. I step out onstage and I don’t worry. I don’t even worry when things aren’t going right … I’m just there, and I think I’ve experienced it, and I probably feel more comfortable onstage than I do any other place in my life. Except maybe, you know, a stock tank with a fishing pole.
The legend is that Willie Nelson brought the rednecks and the hippies together back in the ’70s. When you really started to hit your career stride in the 1990s, you were bringing the folk music fans and the rowdy college party kids together. Do you still see that mix at your shows, or do you think your audience has changed?
No, no, I’ve got the same mix. My big joke is that I’m the Milton Bradley “Game of Entertainment”: I was good for everyone from 8 to 80. Probably the biggest response somebody will tell me face-to-face is, “I haven’t seen new music in forever, but this is my son and he got all turned on to you in 2005, and he loves your music and he sings ‘The Five Pound Bass’ all the time and …” So yeah, I’m cross-generational, which I would say is a real success right there, knowing that those songs and stuff go on and on.
And so does your tour schedule! You’re playing another landmark Texas venue, Gruene Hall, tomorrow night with your old Texas A&M friend Lyle Lovett. I know the two of you have played a lot of shows together over the years, but have you ever done one together there?
No, this’ll be the first, but Lyle and I have been all over for the last five weeks. Mostly … say you put a line starting around Winnipeg, Canada, and draw it down to Nuevo Laredo? We’ve been everywhere to the right of that line.
And of course, before we know it, it’ll be time for you to kick off your annual run of “Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee” shows. You’ve been doing those for awhile now, but you always come up with something different for it every year, right?
Yes. Well, this one will be similar to last year’s; we did sort of a country theme, but we’ve beefed it up this year. This’ll be called “The Fam-O-Lee Country Gold Jamboree,” so we’ve beefed up the set, and we have it where everybody picks an icon and an iconic song to sing, and it’s just a hoot. It’s not as much about Christmas as it is just celebrating that time of year, you know? We have that song, of course, but we don’t just play a lot of Christmas songs. What we do is get out there and have a really good time, and everybody’s in some kind of costume. We have this big set with like, the World’s Largest Box of Tampons, all that business, and it’s just fun. As much work as it is — and believe me, it’s a lot of work, I am not Orson Welles by any stretch — once I get into it, I’m really happy I did it. It’s a different way of playing, different kind of message, and the whole thing’s a big hoot.
Speaking of something different, Happy Prisoner from last year was a big fan favorite and a critical success, too, especially in bluegrass circles. What inspired you to take on that project?
Well, I was a bluegrass fan since before I ever even started playing. I love the sort of hear and touch aspect of bluegrass, in that it’s right there in front of you, and you don’t even have to play really great to play some bluegrass songs. Other than maybe jazz, it’s the most communal form of music that I know. And I love that, and I love the songs, and I was a huge fan of everybody from the Stanley Brothers to the Kentucky Colonels to Flatt & Scruggs to Bill Monroe. When people started talking about The Wall or the White Album or something like that, I didn’t know what the hell they were even talking about, because I was listening to bluegrass all that time. Hall & Oates, is that a breakfast cereal? [Laughs]
There are two things that stopped me from doing something like this before, and one was that I always felt compelled to always be writing most of my own songs, and the other thing was that I never felt like I was a bluegrass singer. Finally I just went, you know, what kind of stupid rules are you making for yourself? You love this stuff, if you’re gonna do it, you ought to do it now.
As both a songwriter and performer, you got a pretty unique honor from BMI last year. Can you talk a bit about your BMI Troubadour Award.
That was huge, absolutely. I wouldn’t be in the music business if it wasn’t for BMI, I’ve made so many great friendships over there. Somehow, for people that don’t know, they think BMI is just another music-biz industry adjunct, but it’s just full of wonderful people that really love music and really love songwriters. Once you get a little bit aware of that, I’ve always been in on helping them, and they’ve responded tenfold to me. Because I never had any hits … you know, BMI, ASCP, SESAC, the money that derives from any of those places has to do with radio. Top 10 hits, top 40 hits … but I’ve never had that. Not even with someone else recording one of my songs. So I’ve never really been part of their money thing. But still we’ve always been so close, and Jody Williams told me personally, “We made this award because this is what BMI was started for. It was started for people that went out and played music for everybody, back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and we want to recognize you as someone who keeps fanning the flame.”
As a songwriter specifically, you’ve been covered frequently and enthusiastically. What’s the greatest version of one of your songs you’ve heard so far?
The collaboration between Lyle and I on “The Front Porch Song,” or “This Old Porch” — his version I think is just beautiful and deep and heartfelt. I’d say that’s probably my favorite.
Have you heard any covers of your songs that seemed to just come out of left field, totally unexpected?
Yeah, I heard one a long time ago, that song “Shades of Gray” … not very long after I wrote it, someone sent me a record from up in the Northeast, I think on the Rounder label. The band was called Cry Cry Cry, and it was three people, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, and Richard Schindell, who I knew of because I always liked the folk music thing. And so I’m thinking, “That’s nice, they sent me this record. There’s a song called ‘Shades of Gray,’ that’s cool, I’ve got one like that, too.” And about a month or so later I pick it up and listen to it, and hey, it’s my song! And it was outstanding, because these people can really sing and play. I was knocked out, one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever had.
Along with Happy Prisoner, you also came out with your own beer last year: Robert Earl Keen’s Honey Pils. How did that come together?
That came out of just some casual conversations about, “How’d you like to put out a beer with the Pedernales Brewing people?” And I said, “Well yeah, sure.” So we talked about it and they asked, “What kind do you like?” And I said, “I like pilsners. My favorite beer I ever had was one time when I was in Austria and had this beautifully golden beer that you could just see the bubbles, like little planets popping up from the very bottom, so I want a beer like that if I get to choose.” So that’s what we made and it was so successful that we followed up with this amber ale (Robert Earl Keen Frot Porch Amber Ale.) This is truly something I had a hand in, with the flavor and the idea, but as far as getting it out there and selling it I just put my name on it.
On a more kid-friendly note, you’ve certainly inspired a lot of younger folks to pick up a guitar, but you’ve inspired quite a few to pick up other instruments, too. Tell me a little about the Hill Country Youth Orchestra that you work with.
The Hill Country Youth Orchestra was started, let’s see … it’ll be 30 years ago this next year. I’ve been working with them for 10, and I got into it because my daughter Chloe started playing the violin when she was 6 years old, and I just loved the passion of the teachers. There’s six or eight teachers, they teach these kids how to play violin, viola, cello and bass, and they teach them how to play in symphony situations, they teach them how to read music, and everyone is welcome, from 6 years old all the way to senior year of high school. And the magic of this program is, there’s a lot of programs like this — and I’ve talked to people from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon — but this is the only one that’s free to anyone. It’s not exclusive; some of those other programs are pretty expensive, but here they will find you an instrument. If you are interested, all you have to do is have the will and the ability to sit in a chair and take instruction. They have about 140 kids; when I started they had about 90, and we do a concert for them every year and give them every bit of money. And we surround it with auctions and stuff. In general over the years we make about $60,000 a year. It’s been really helpful, especially around those lean years like 2010 and 2011; they lost some sponsorships (then) but the concert money kept ‘em afloat. But now we’ve branched out into the Kerrville school system, where the art classes in the middle school and high school have this art thing for a week called “What Does Music Look Like to Me?” So they draw all these pictures, we give ‘em a big pizza party and give away some guitars, take a lot of pictures and stuff. And that leads up to the big orchestra concert.
That’s great, especially since it seems like art and music always end up being the first things on the chopping block when budgets are getting cut.
Yeah, well that’s because people are stupid. I mean, I could get really vocal about that one right there. What are we gonna do when we cut all our art, sit around and play with our phones all the time? There’s no lack of interest in any of those things; [the budget cuts] aren’t driven by lack of interest, it’s driven by people that don’t understand it.
Speaking of young artists, are there any new acts out there lately that have really caught your attention?
I know a young man, David Beck, who is my bass player’s [Bill Whitbeck] son, and he has been through a couple of bands but also he produces stuff, and to me he is amazing. A great example of someone who’s of the moment, doing stuff, not leaning on all the old stuff. He goes out and helps people make records, form bands … he can just do anything. Totally inspiring kid. [David Beck, formerly of Sons of Fathers, now plays in the indie-rock band Blue Healer.]
Going back to the subject of Live Dinner Reunion, there’s a number of “newer” songs on there that of course weren’t around yet when you made the No. 2 Live Dinner. But your catalog is so deep at this point, there’s bound to be a lot of songs you’ve written that you maybe don’t get to play as often as you’d like to, just because there’s never enough time in a single show. Are there any favorites like that that come to mind?
Well, Shawn Colvin did this song that lyrically I thought was one of my best achievements. It’s called “Not a Drop of Rain.” I don’t play it very often but Shawn recorded it last year and that was really nice. In general, if I’m at a festival or something, I’m not going to play something that’s fragile. Nobody’s going to listen to it. But if you’re in a right room, a nice theater or something, you can really drop back and be subtle and make things work. I play to the room, so a lot of the softer stuff on the records, you’re not going to hear at most concerts.
After this live album — and the holiday shows — what’s next for you? Given your track record over the last 20 years, what else would you like to accomplish before the “Live Dinner” 40th anniversary kicks in?
Ha! I like that. I really think what I’m moving towards now is, I’m writing short songs for a short-attention-span culture. That’s what’s gonna come out next. These are like 90-second songs that don’t really repeat the chorus, they have one message and one message only, and just about the time it starts, it’s over. My whole idea is just to do that. It started as a whimsical thing just to amuse myself, but as I go along, I kind of like the whole idea. They’re fun and I like playing them. It’s not so much of a band thing, though, because you hardly have time to get the band started. But that seems to fit the way that I think, so I’m going to try that next.
It’d be hard to cram the details of “The Road Goes on Forever” into a minute and a half.
No doubt! But that’s not the point. The point is, if I can get one thought clearly across and not layer it with subtext or overriding meaning, that one thought would be worth it.
Most people’s attention spans are pretty much shot. This could be a gold mine.
Yeah, who knows? I don’t know. But the thing is, there’s a lot of music out there. I just want to do something different that interests me.
Well, if anybody could pull it off …