Keen's Music Combines Passions

Keen's Music Combines Passions

Robert Earl Keen was carving out his future at Texas A&M University when he met a tall, lanky, big-haired fellow who lived just around the corner on Church Street.

That tall, lanky, big-haired fellow, a language-lover who was studying German and journalism at A&M, would head the three or four or five houses down from where he lived, toting along his guitar, and would pull up a chair on Keen’s front porch — a popular gathering spot for students who wanted to jam and pick (and maybe grin a little) between classes.

And so began Keen’s longtime friendship with fellow musician Lyle Lovett, one the two immortalized in the “The Front Porch Song.” It’s one of the tunes the two are likely to sing when they perform an acoustic concert at Memorial Auditorium Saturday night. It will be Keen, Lovett, Lovett’s big hair (but not his Large Band), a couple of guitars, a few chords and the truth.

Keen, also a language-lover, who finally declared himself an English major after two years of being undecided, knew of Lovett. They shared some of the same classes at A&M.

“We had a lot of similar interests,” Keen said of his old college buddy. “We both played music. We both leaned toward country and folk music, and that was it. It’s like a couple of people that enjoy baseball. We’d spend hours and hours talking about our favorite performers and how cool this song is ...”

The paths of the songwriters don’t cross often these days. Both are busy on the road with their own bands and with their own musical projects, so they decided to launch a mini tour.

“It will be the reuniting of a couple of old college buddies.”

When he was at A&M, Keen, whose father was a geologist and mom a lawyer, said he was “floating about,” not really mapping out a clear path for his life when his counselor told him, “You need to really get serious.”

He said with a laugh, “I came to college to NOT be serious, so what are you talking about? But I realized what I enjoyed the most was reading ... I don’t think most people go to A&M to study English.”

Little did he know how that love of language, reading and writing would come together for him in his career as a songwriter. The Texas icon was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame along with legend Townes Van Zandt and Lovett and was recently the first inductee into the Lone Star Music Hall of Fame. Keen first gained acclaim in 1983 when he won the Kerrville Folk Festival’s prestigious New Folk songwriting competition. He built his career the old-school, grass roots fashion, by hitting the road and constantly touring. Of course, he has written a few good songs, too: “Gringo Honeymoon,” “Corpus Christi Bay,” “Merry Christmas From the Family,” “Whenever Kindness Fails,” and the biggie, the Keen anthem, “The Road Goes on Forever.”

And he accomplished all of that without the advantage of a major record deal or the kind of music infrastructure that exists today in Texas.

In his three decades in the business, he said, “The biggest difference now is the Internet. It’s the largest influence altogether. It’s so mind-boggling.”

Not that Keen hasn’t embraced the Internet himself.

He launched a new website last week in Austin with a website rollout party, along with two hours of live streaming.

“The website, I believe, is a musician’s best friend. You can get out information without going through a bevy of friends.”

In other ways, though, Keen remains dedicated to certain traditions. Although he knows today’s music-lovers buy singles and not albums, “I’m still very much a whole-album kind of guy,” he said. “That was a learned process, too. I can write this whole album, and that’s cool ... all those concept albums. I still believe in the single song, but I don’t think ... you get to explore all the options you have.”

Keen has been excited about this mini tour with Lovett, who is not just an old friend but a songwriter he admires. When you ask him to compare their styles, he jokes that it would take a college thesis to do so. “It’s hard to be concise about that,” he said with a laugh.

“But Lyle is a great, great singer, so his songs sing really well, and I have a wider range of note choices ... Mine, I’m not a great singer.

“Also, he tends to write really close, in personal experience stuff, and he has a great perspective on people and his own relationships. They (fans) can see themselves in his songs. I go with a broader spectrum of songs, from farm-fresh onions to Christmas songs ... I see every category as being song-worthy.”

As far as their similarities, Keen said, it’s that they both have had a strong belief in themselves.

“The music business is a very tough business, and we have tremendous tenacity. Also, we LOVE music. We totally love music and being musicians and playing music.”

Besides launching his new website, Keen said he is working on a new record.

“I’ve been working on songs. I have a concept. It’s going to be warm and friendly.”

Add that to show after show with his band to support his current album, “Ready for Confetti” (it hit No. 1 on the Americana charts), and a golf tournament June 22 to benefit the youth orchestra in Kerrville — Keen is a big supporter of youth and classical music.

And of course, there is that novel he has been working on for five years that he says he may finish in five more years.

Keen said when he started out, he thought, “How big is the universe for me? I felt like I was one of the lucky ones. I had a handful of things I wanted to accomplish: I wanted to play at the Houston Rodeo. I wanted to meet Willie Nelson.”

Keen has done those things, and so the rest is all good. IF YOU GO
What: Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen in concert
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 1300 Seventh St.
When: 8-10:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25 to $65, applicable service fees may apply
Information: 716-5555 or here

By Lana Sweeten-Shults