The idea started with a brush fire, but before long it took on a life of its own. Two lives, in fact: Coal and Flynt Stryker, a pair of mysterious siblings who died in a prison fire, leaving behind a batch of long-lost country recordings. Except that they didn’t. Cole and Flynt never even existed. The Stryker Brothers were nothing more than an excuse for Robert Earl Keen and Randy Rogers to make an album together.
So why did they go to all the trouble? “I thought it was just funny and cool and interesting. Let’s have a little mystery in life,” says Keen, sitting with Rogers in a soundproof control room backstage at ACL Live in Austin, Texas, one afternoon in December. He’s splayed out sideways in his chair, as though he’s discovered a new plane of comfort at this absurd angle. “It’s surprising how many people were like, ‘Now, what’s going on?’ If you have to explain it to ’em, it’s kind of like having to explain a joke.”
Keen and Rogers are preparing to take the stage for the first — and as far as they know, only — time as the Stryker Brothers. And they likely never expected to get this far. Since they started writing the 13 songs that became Burn Band, released last September, they constructed an elaborate backstory, had friends like Todd Snider, Bruce Robison and Shooter Jennings lie about it on video, and even brought an astronaut with them to tonight’s show. But none of that was the plan when they started.
Back in 2017, the two Texas Country vets had gotten together for the 75th anniversary of John T. Floore’s Country Store, a honky-tonk outside San Antonio. “We set this field on fire and took a bunch of pictures for this thing. Then I started making a bunch of jokes about how we have to make this record called the Arsonists,” says Keen. “My thought was, put it out there and let [the listeners] figure out who it is.”
Existing copyrights meant the Arsonists name was a nonstarter, but Rogers was still onboard to collaborate. “It gives me goosebumps now just thinking about it,” he says, looking down thoughtfully at his crossed legs as he speaks. “When you play shows as much as we do, 150 a year or whatever, to be honest it’s not always the greatest, most amazing thing that people think it is. Creating something with a hero, a guy I look up to so much, was very uplifting.
”Convening for a writing session at Keen’s Scriptorium, his secluded songwriting outpost in the Texas Hill Country, they knocked out five songs in a day and a half — when they weren’t busy drinking tequila, riding four-wheelers and starting bonfires. “It was actually like real work at the very end. We’re drinking and eating venison sausage and going, ‘We gotta get one more song!'” says Keen, slurring his speech in imitation. “I don’t regularly write when I’m drunk, so I’m going, ‘What did you say? I like that.'”