Robert Earl Keen to play in Buffalo Gap

ABILENE — Many Red Dirt country singers mention Robert Earl Keen’s name when talking about their musical influences, holding him up as an icon on the Texas music scene

“In some ways, I feel a little strange being called iconic or legendary,” Keen said in a phone interview from his home in Kerrville. “When I think of a legend, I think of Ulysses S. Grant or John Wayne, more historic figures. “I’m not ready to be put out to pasture yet.”

The Houston native will perform today at the Red Dirt Pavilion in Buffalo Gap. It will mark his first concert in Taylor County since 2006.

Keen said his own influences range from stars such as Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson to lesser-known musicians, including Gary Stewart and Norman Blake. Keen said he stands in awe of Blake’s guitar skills and has bought all of his records.

“I think it’s the simplicity,” Keen said about the music that influences him. “I love blues and bluegrass and string quartets. The music almost touches your ear.”

His own music touches a lot of people as he tours an average of 200 days a year, traveling from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine.

At most of his shows, he plays his signature song, “The Road Goes On Forever.” Though he’s been singing it since the late 1980s, he said he still hasn’t tired of it.

“Because my alternative would be ‘Free Bird’ and I’m never going to do that,” he said with a chuckle.

On the occasions he doesn’t play “The Road Goes On Forever,” he said he hears about it from the fans.

He recalled one night, in particular, when he was leaving the venue after a show. The audience had cleared out, except for one long, tall cowboy smoking a cigarette. He was leaning against a wall, one foot raised and braced behind him, like the silhouette art pieces sold in Western gift shops.

The cowboy looked at Keen and said, “I guess the road doesn’t go on forever.”

“I feel that he pretty much capsulated how it feels when I don’t play it,” Keen said.

He said he considers the audiences at his shows to be like a sixth member of his band, much like the Aggies’ Twelfth Man in football. Keen said he pays attention to the audience and has learned to read his crowds.

“Audiences are sometimes like children,” he said. “They can’t really lie or deceive you about the music.”

He said that if he plays a new song and it’s a snoozer, the audience lets him know. If the song is a tension-producing piece, he looks to see tension in the audience. As he performs, he said, he watches his fans’ reactions. That helps him create the best shows he can, he said.

One fun song he said he likes to play is “Dreadful Selfish Crime.”

“It’s sort of a sleeper,” he said. “It’s like a taco — fun to make and fun to eat.”

About a year ago, he added “I’ve Got to Go” to his set and people really reacted to it from the first time he played it. Now that people know the song, he said, when the first few chords are played, the audience goes crazy.

“It’s like winding up a toy,” he said. “People start jumping up and down.”

Keen said his personal favorite album is “Ready for Confetti,” released in 2011. But he said the album that most reflects his styles and wackiness would be 2005’s “What I Really Mean.” He said some people might call it disconnected, but that doesn’t matter to him.

“It’s got great songs on it and some sideways stuff,” Keen said. “It entertains me, and in the music business, if you can’t entertain yourself, it gets tedious.”

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By Janet Van Vleet Scripps Newspapers