How Robert Earl Keen Became a Country and Americana Cult Hero

But Keen is far from some novelty holiday act. While he's not a well-known figure, he has amassed a passionate fan base of rednecks, hippies, frat boys and country scholars who swoon over his real-life lyrics and give-no-shits attitude. George Strait is a fan and has tapped him to open some of his Las Vegas concerts. He's also cut Keen's tracks, as have the Dixie Chicks, the Highwaymen and Joe Ely, among many others. To Keen's fans, his songs "The Road Goes on Forever," "Gringo Honeymoon" and "The Front Porch Song" are American classics, helping make him arguably the most important figure to the formation of Red Dirt music as we know it. Still, for all the acclaim and influence, he's never quite fit into the country music ecosystem.

"The guys who quote-unquote 'made it' from Nashville can't hold Robert's guitar pick," says his longtime producer Lloyd Maines, whose daughter is Natalie Maines. "He's a smart guy who could smell a rat, but he never conformed to the business norm. He really wanted to stay true to what he was doing, and also true to his fans."

That helps explain why Keen, a 62-year-old singer-songwriter who's never had a hit song or album, is such a respected figure in the country music world. In his home state of Texas, his career is the stuff of lore, especially on the campuses of major universities like Texas A&M, his alma mater. No one tells that story better than Keen except, perhaps, for Lyle Lovett.