Robert Earl Keen’s cult-like fan base is obnoxious enough to make you mistake the country singer for the Texan version of Jimmy Buffett. His concerts draw a rabid following, fans won by raucous party anthems that seem to crystallize nostalgia for college keg parties. His songs are often booze-soaked, with the broken dreams of downtrodden cowboys or oilrig workers offered up as cathartic salve for former frat boys who have grown into beleaguered, suburban everymen. And when he swings through the House of Blues this month, fans young and old will shout back lyrics like “another Bloody Mary!” or “the party never ends!” In 1996, Keen told Texas Monthly that some of his friends stopped going to his shows because they were tired of audience members hollering lyrics louder than the performer. But despite all this, Keen has also penned some of the most enduring, quintessential odes to contemporary Texas life.
The reality is, Keen’s brand of artisanal songwriting shouldn’t have the following it has. He writes lines that are as effortless as they are easy to underestimate, meticulously wrought and evocatively detailed. In a genre that prizes humble, guitar-slinging heroes, Keen is almost too much the guy off the street. He isn’t a particularly good singer or musician, and onstage he looks like an estranged relative who just surprised the family by grabbing the guitar at a backyard barbecue. He tried Nashville, and unlike his friend and fellow Texas Aggie Lyle Lovett, the city chewed him up and spit him out.
He returned to Texas like one of the weary characters in his songs: broken dreams, a broken car, a wife, and a guitar—and his tail between his legs. Then, a bluegrass music label offered him a second chance, and Keen penned as simple and ingenious a hook as has ever been written in country music: “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.” For his career, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keen’s tireless road consists of hundreds of tour dates a year. When he’s not holding town-hall meetings for the cult of Keen, he retreats to a tiny cabin in Kerrville, nicknamed the “Scriptorium,” where he pens his songs and cooks beans over a campfire. His 17 albums are as idiosyncratic as his career. He has a knack for the nonhit smash hit, anthems that are usually more successful when other artists record them, or, in the case of a 2011 controversy, when superstars like Toby Keith blatantly rip them off. But elsewhere on each record, Keen swerves into a musical landscape that blends the hard-swaggering honky-tonk of a Merle Haggard with the lyrical sublimity of a Townes van Zandt.
The songs are often populated with the usual country imagery: cowboys, horses, battered roads, pistols, pool cues, beer bottles, and chain-smoking waitresses. But in Keen’s romantic imagination, the chain-smoking waitress doesn’t just cruise the strip with him; she does so with a beer bottle between her legs. The Mexican gardener doesn’t just work hard; he stands as a silhouette against the horizon like a scene from John Ford’s The Searchers. It’s as if he borrows the caricatures from other country songs and invests them with novelistic pathos.
When Keen rolls through Dallas this month, audiences will be treated to one of the most popular and perfect Robert Earl Keen songs, “Merry Christmas from the Family.” The song is a showstopper, one whose every last line the audience will surely sing back to the performer. In it, the redneck heroes of a Texan Christmas buy snow by the can, blow out the Christmas lights with a motor-home generator, and run to the Quick-Pak store for everything from Marlboro Lights and Pampers to Diet Rites and a can of bean dip. The song’s charm comes from the way it disarms the preciousness of the holiday with wry, Chevy Chase wit. And yet, as with many of Keen’s songs, there’s an emotional punch that comes from the narrative suggested in between the lines of his lyrics.
At the end of the first verse, Keen sings: “Little sister brought her new boyfriend/he was Mexican/ we didn’t know what to think of him until he sang/‘Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad.’ ” We can imagine the scene: the worn couch, the long faces of the parents, the poor boyfriend standing there nervously next to an awkward young girl. It’s a theme that resurfaces in many of Keen’s songs: a revealing sense of foreignness—between people and their dreams, hope and the hard reality of the world, wandering souls and a true sense of self. But then Keen offers his twist, the ostracized boyfriend spontaneously breaking into song. The effect is reminiscent of another Christmas classic, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” leveraging the lyrical mood of the holiday to mark a melancholic resolve. Pass the eggnog, light another cigarette, and strike up another song. Life is what it is: strange, garish, strained, and incomprehensible, but also warm with love running in the veins of even those who have been dealt a bad hand in life. It’s about as honest and sincere a sentiment a Texas song could offer the Christmas tradition.