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.

Robert Earl Keen

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 middle child of a geologist father and an attorney mother, Keen was weaned on classic rock (in particular, the psychedelic blues trio Cream) and his older brother's Willie Nelson records but it was his younger sister's downtown Houston celebrity status as a "world-champion foosball player" that exposed him to the area's acoustic folk scene. By the time he started working on his English degree at Texas A&M, he was teaching himself guitar and setting his poetic musings to song. That in turn led to a college fling with a bluegrass ensemble (featuring his childhood friend Bryan Duckworth, who would continue to play fiddle with Keen well into the '90s) and front-porch picking parties with fellow Aggie Lovett at Keen's rental house salad days captured in spirit on the Keen/Lovett co-write, "The Front Porch Song," which both artists would eventually record on their respective debut albums.

While Lovett's self-titled debut was released on major-label Curb Records, Keen took the road less travelled, self-financing and producing 1984's No Kinda Dancer and leasing it to the independent label Rounder Records, which issued it on its Philo imprint. "It was difficult, because I didn't know what I was doing ... I literally opened up the phonebook and looked for studios," Keen recalls. "I basically put it all together through brute force and ignorance, but I was shocked with how well it worked out and very happy with it. We had a release party at Butch Hancock's Dixie Bar and Bustop, and Lyle and Nanci Griffith and a lot of those people who were a part of the Austin folkie scene came out."

Keen himself had already started to make quite a name for himself on that scene, thanks to four years of constant regional gigging and winning the Kerrville Folk Festival's prestigious New Folk songwriting competition in 1983. After his debut's release, he began touring more and more outside of the state lines, eventually moving to Nashville in 1986. Keen's stint in Music City, U.S.A., lasted just under two years, but he returned to Texas armed with a publishing deal, a new label (another indie, Sugar Hill), and a national booking agent. He closed the decade with 1988's The Live Album and the following year's West Textures, the album that marked the debut of "The Road Goes on Forever" and, not inconsequently, kicked his career into high gear.

With hindsight, Keen admits he no idea at the time of writing it that his song about a couple of ill-fated lovers running afoul of the law would have the legs it did, but he readily points to the forward thinking of DJ Steve Coffman of San Antonio radio station KRIO for helping to start the fire. "He talked the station into doing sort of a free-form programing format, basically anything he liked, which turned out to be some Texas music along with a lot of cool sort of pop music," he says. "So all of a sudden, I heard my song back-to-back with the Sheryl Crow song that was popular at the time, and that was the first time that I really felt like I was a real part of the music business, despite having been in it already for a pretty long time. And right after that, I went to a show in San Antonio and there were 1,500 people there whereas up to that point I'd been playing to, max, maybe 150. That was the real ah-hah moment for me that really got me going and kept me going, because before that I'd been doing this for eight or 10 years and had a lot of rejection but very little success."

After that, though, success came in spades. Although he continued to steer clear of the Garth Brooks-dominated waters of the country mainstream, the perfect storm of Keen's literate songcraft, razor wit and killer band (more on that in a bit) stirred up a grassroots sensation in Texas not seen since the '70s heyday of maverick "outlaw country" upstarts Willie, Waylon, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Armed with two more albums (1993's A Bigger Piece of Sky and '94's Gringo Honeymoon) brimming with instant classics like "Corpus Christi Bay," "Whenever Kindness Fails," "Gringo Honeymoon," "Dreadful Selfish Crime" and "Merry Christmas From the Family," he began packing dancehalls, roadhouses, theaters, and festival grounds with diverse crowds of rowdy college kids, serious singer-songwriter fans and plenty of folks who, like Keen himself, had been around the Texas music scene long enough to remember Willie's earliest 4th of July Picnics. And the phenomenon was not confined to the Texas state lines. Famed producer and pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely, Terry Allen) helped Keen and his band bottle lighting on 1996's No. 2 Live Dinner, a next-best-thing-to-being-there concert document that remains one of Keen's best-selling albums, and the burgeoning alt-country scene (bolstered by AAA radio stations across the country and magazines like No Depression) embraced Keen as one of its prime movers. In the wake of albums like 1997's Picnic and '98's Walking Distance (both released on major-label Arista), one would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between a rabid Robert Earl Keen crowd at Texas' legendary Gruene Hall and those at New York City joints like Tramps and the Bowery Ballroom. Little wonder, then, that when the songwriter-revering "Americana" style was officially recognized by the industry 1998, Keen was the genre's first artist to be featured on the cover of the radio trade magazine Gavin.

The '90s may have been a boom period for Keen, but his momentum hasn't ebbed a bit since the turn of the century nor has his pursuit of continued growth as a writer and artist. If anything, his output from the last decade has been marked by some of the most adventurous music of his career. "Wild Wind," an unforgettable highlight from Gravitational Forces, his Gurf Morlic-produced 2001 debut for the Nashville-based Americana label Lost Highway, captured the character (and characters) of a small Texas town with a cinematic eye reminiscent of The Last Picture Show; but the album's title track also found Keen wryly experimenting with spacey, beatnik jazz. For the freewheelin', freak-flag-flying Farm Fresh Onions (2003, Audium/Koch), Keen and producer Rich Brotherton (his longtime guitarist) took the band into the proverbial garage to knock out their most rocking set of songs to date most notably the psychedelic rave-up of the title track. Brotherton also produced the more rootsy but equally playful What I Really Mean (2005, E1 Music), but Lloyd Maines was back at the helm for 2009's eclectic The Rose Hotel and 2011's spirited Ready for Confetti (both released by Lost Highway). The later was especially well received by fans and critics alike, with AllMusic's Thom Jurek raving, "Ready for Confetti is, without question, Keen's most inspired and focused project in nearly 20 years."

But the road goes on and on, with no time for resting on laurels. Not that Keen's complaining. "I had a relatively open schedule for 2013 back at the beginning of the year, but it has just filled in like you wouldn't believe," he marvels during a rare day off in Kerrville, Texas (where he lives with his wife and two daughters). "I've broke my record this year I've packed for five trips at one time, because I wasn't going to be starting any of them in the same place. It's been crazy!"

Earlier this year, Keen played a handful of sold-out theater dates with Lyle Lovett, just two old friends swapping songs on acoustic guitars like they used to do on Keen's front porch in College Station. But 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 will mark 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!"

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Rich Brotherton

Rich picked up a guitar at age eight in his home town of Augusta, Georgia, when his father showed him some chords on an old Harmony tenor. He began performing professionally at age 11, playing his first solo gigs at 14. He graduated from Aquinas High School in Augusta, then from the Colorado College with a degree in Music Theory and Composition.

Rich Brotherton
Rich Brotherton

After graduation he traveled to Ireland where he took up residency (lived in a tent, actually) in Doolin, Co. Clare, a center of traditional music on the country's west coast. That summer and the next saw him performing with and learning from some of Ireland's finest traditional musicians. From there it was back to Idaho where his family had relocated, and where he played in bars and met his future wife, Kathy. Then on to Austin, Texas, where he resides to this day with his family.

Rich has been with the Robert Earl Keen Band since 1993 and has never regretted it for a moment. He plays acoustic and electric guitars and sings harmony vocals. He also produced two of Robert's CD's - 2003's "Farm Fresh Onions", and 2005's "What I really Mean".

In addition to this work with the Keen band, Rich recently completed work on a recording studio, Ace Recording, where he works as a producer, arranger and engineer. (e-mail acerecording@sbcglobal.net)

Rich has been cited twice as Best Acoustic Guitarist and once as Best Producer by the Austin Chronicle's Austin Music Awards. Additionally, in 2006, the Colorado College granted him the Louis Benezet award for outstanding achievement by an alumnus. Despite these accolades, he remains humble.

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Bill Whitbeck

I was born in Washington D.C. but grew up in La Porte, Texas. I started playing the trombone in the school band in sixth grade. I began playing the bass guitar a couple of years later and by the end of high school I was playing in bands around the gulf coast.

Bill Whitbeck
Bill Whitbeck

I moved to San Marcos after school and kept on playing at clubs and dancehalls all over Texas. I started writing songs and performing them with bands and solo. In ’95 I had the opportunity to audition for a job with Robert Earl Keen. I got the gig. Playing with Robert has been a great opportunity. My fellow band mates are great musicians and it’s a challenge to perform at such a high level. I’ve gotten to write some songs with Robert and have recorded a few. Playing on the road is tough, but the shows make it all worth while. I still live in San Marcos with my wife, Kim. My son, David Beck, is a great musician. His band, Sons of Fathers, is doing well. My daughter Katy is studying voice at Texas State, where I went. I look forward to many more years of recording, traveling, and performing with Robert.

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TOM VAN SCHAIK

Tom makes a living doing what most parents tell their kids to stop doing... hitting things.

Born in Claremont, New Hampshire, Tom's family lived in Vermont and Connecticut before moving to Dallas when he was 10 years old.

Tom Van Schaik
TOM VAN SCHAIK

There he began a formal study of drums and percussion which continues to this day. He attended St. Marks School in Dallas, where his father was Head of the Science Department. After graduation, he attended University of North Texas to study music, earning a Bachelors Degree in Jazz Studies and minoring in Music Theory. Freelancing around Dallas/Ft Worth since he was 17, he eventually joined a little band from Texas - the Dixie Chicks. His tenure with the girls stretched from 1991-96 including "3 records, many TV shows and countless shows in the US, Japan and Europe". After leaving the Dixie Chicks, he joined the Robert Earl Keen Band in May 1997. "I am so fortunate to be able to tour around the country all these years with my best friends (all incredible musicians) and play such great songs every night. What other job could you have where a crowd of people is cheering and going nuts just because you are going to work?". He is endorsed by Promark Drumsticks, Aquarian Drumheads, Mapex Drums and Sabian Cymbals. Tom lives in Austin, TX with his wife and their dogs.

For a more in depth bio and information - please go to tomvanschaik.com

"Fun Facts":

  • Tom is a pesca-tarian. No...not a Star Trek character ... think vegetarian + fish. His wife goes fishing in Alaska every year with her father, bringing home hundreds of pounds of fish.

  • Tom enjoys woodworking and has made the entertainment center, fireplace mantle, closet organizer, etc. for his home renovation... not to mention the official smushball court for the REK tour bus.

  • Tom has played for every President since Gerald Ford (with the exception of Jimmy Carter.... not all were in office at the time).

  • As a child, Tom tapped maple trees to make syrup in Vermont with his grandfather.

  • Tom is related (distantly, if you've ever seen him dance) to Gene Kelly.

  • While teaching at the Arts Magnet High School in Dallas, one of his students was Norah Jones.

  • First band = Storm Warning ... a horn band in high school. We played mostly Chicago and some Blood, Sweat & Tears.

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Marty Muse

Marty started in the business of making music in the mid-seventies in Chicago. After following his muse to California and back to the midwest, made his way to Austin, TX in 1985.

Marty Muse
Marty Muse

Since that time he has enjoyed being a part of the fantastic music community in Austin, recording and performing with a wide variety of artists including: The Derailers, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Dwight Yoakum, Rick Trevino...... He has been touring and recording with REK since the dawn of the new millennium.

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Charles Ray

“The Sound Guy” for REK since August 1999; Sound business in Austin, Texas since 1975; mostly worked with Joe Ely, Jerry Jeff Walker, Delbert McClinton, Texas Tornadoes; 23 years with Crosswind Sound in Austin as Chief Engineer; engineered records, too (several Ely, Delbert, Jerry Jeff, Austin Lounge Lizards, Uranium Savages,Shakin' Apostles).

Charles Ray
Charles Ray

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, then at age 8 moved to Dallas and then Irving, Texas; Austin (or nearby) since 1968; graduated high school in Austin; seven years at The University of Texas at Austin; one of the new guys in the Uranium Savages (band formed 1975, I joined 1979) -- guitar and vocals.

My wife, Pam, and I live about 20 miles outside of Austin on Onion Creek with Chester the bulldog, two more dogs and three cats; we were married out there on the land in 1990; moved out there and later built a house with our own hands; our only son, Jesse, moved back in to Austin where he is a junior at the University of Texas.

I've worked with many a great Texas musician, but when I went to work full time with Robert Earl Keen in August of 1999, it felt like home. He's the most generous, kind boss I've had (not to mention the best songwriter I've known). And damned funny, too. The music is wonderful, the band is the best, the camaraderie fun and it's a great place for me to be.

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