For more than three decades now, Robert Earl Keen has been promising us that “the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.” It turns out, though, that the road doesn’t go on forever, and the party eventually ends.
On March 15, 2022, Keen released a public statement: “It’s with a mysterious concoction of joy and sadness that I want to tell you that as of September 4, 2022, I will no longer tour or perform publicly.” For a longtime road warrior like Keen, this was a startling announcement, and he’s stuck to it. He did a few songs at a TCU ceremony and at an Old Crow Medicine Show in Dallas, but, he swears, “I won’t do a full show of my own for money.”
“A couple of years before this happened,” the now-67-year-old singer says, “I had this small thought: ‘How does one retire from this? And if I do, what will happen next?’ Like a lot of people, I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it after my kids get out of college or after I do this or after I do that.’ But it felt like I was just setting up bowling pins in front of me to knock down.
“Then I saw that movie Training Day, and the Denzel Washington character kept saying, ‘Make a decision, make a decision.’ So I did. I picked a date. I ran the calendar through my head and decided on a few days after Labor Day. Charlie Walker, the promoter, told me, ‘Don’t hold on to that information; don’t leave people hanging.’ He’s a no-nonsense guy; that’s why I called him.”
The “joy and sadness” he anticipated in his statement hit him as expected. He never wanted to be “that guy they push up to the microphone in a wheelchair,” so he felt immense relief from putting the decision behind him. No longer would he have to worry about the increasing burnout and declining health on the road. He could spend more time at home pursuing other projects. There was joy in that. The sadness came from breaking up the band and giving up the bus.
“My bass player and I have been together 27 years,” he points out, “my drummer 25, my sound man 20. I knew I’d miss all that, and I did. I miss the bus. Even when the bus was parked between tours, I used to go out there and read a book or whatever. A tour does impose a structure on your life. I spent most of my time getting ready for the next tour or cleaning up the last one. I find that I flail around a lot without that kind of structure. I tell myself, ‘Other people can organize their lives without touring.’ So I make up a list, but then I lose the list.”
During the nine months since his last show, Keen put the finishing touches on his recent box set, Western Chill. The package includes his new 14-song, two-LP gatefold album, a DVD of the making of the album, a 32-page songbook with lead sheets for all 14 songs, and a 92-page graphic novel. The latter follows a Keen-like singer-songwriter named Zane and his talking dog Mac as they travel across West Texas in search of the title song for Zane’s next album, a song that turns out to be “Western Chill.” For the time being, these materials are available only as the physical box set.
“I gave Devin McCue, the writer, the idea of a songwriter starting out from College Station and going to Menard, Lubbock, Marfa and Terlingua on this adventure with his dog, like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley,” Keen explains. “Mac is my dog, named after Cormac McCarthy; we go out to Marfa several times a year. I’m not saying he can talk, but he does jump in the truck if I’m just thinking of driving.”
All of the new album’s songs were written before the graphic novel was created and before the retirement announcement was issued. Keen wrote or co-wrote nine of the numbers, but the other five were written by his bandmates — Kym Warner, Brian Beken, Bill Whitbeck and Tom Van Schaik — who take the lead vocals on four of them. I ask Keen if this was like Tom Sawyer getting the neighborhood kids to whitewash the fence for him. Keen chuckles and says “No.” He says he just wanted to take a different approach this time.
“It’s always been curious to me that bandleaders don’t use their road guys in the studio,” Keen says. “I’ve always tried to include them on my records, even when I use a few auxiliary fellows. Your band is who you live with; you spend more time with them than with your own family. It would be weird to walk up to the door of the studio and tell them, ‘No, you guys wait out here, and I’ll teach you the songs later.’ This time I wanted to include them on more than the playing; I wanted them to contribute to the writing and the arranging. I’d never seen anyone else do that, so I did it.”
It wasn’t easy to keep going through last year’s final tour. Keen’s back went out in March, and that forced him to perform sitting down for the rest of the run, “which was embarrassing,” he admits. The back problem led to foot problems. In New York in July, he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, which has since subsided to merely a nagging nuisance.
“I’m thankful I’m not out there touring now,” he allows. “I’ve had friends die on the road; I’ve seen people disintegrate to almost nothing. I’m glad I could break the habit. I’ve never understood why musicians who are supposed to be so freewheeling can be so conventional about sticking to a routine.”
Retirement offers the opportunity to look back on a career and put it into perspective — to size up what went right and what went wrong. Keen was never an exceptional guitarist, and his voice is an acquired taste, but he knows what his strengths are: writing storytelling lyrics and easy-to-sing-along choruses. His live audiences never needed any prompting to add their voices to Keen’s. And that was enough to give him a good, long run.
“I think it was a glorious time, for the most part,” he reflects. “They’re mostly great memories—and if they’re not great memories, at least they’re good stories. I think I did everything I wanted to do. It would have been nice to have had one song that was a really big hit, even if someone else sang it. I feel like my songs stand up, so maybe I should have spent more time pitching songs. Industry folks were always freaked out when they came to my shows and everyone in a huge audience was singing along. So why wasn’t it working on radio?”
Keen claims he’s a terrible judge of his own songs. When he’s writing them, he never knows which ones will connect with his audience. When he took his best-known song, “The Road Goes on Forever,” to his friend in music publishing, the friend started dancing around the office, exclaiming, “This is a hit!” Keen replied, “It is?”
“I never know,” he admits. “I have some songs I think are great, but they don’t get any reaction at all. ‘Over the Waterfall’ is one of my favorite songs, and I haul it out every once in a while, telling myself, ‘This is the audience who’ll get it.’ But nothing. You can hear the crickets.”
Keen began “The Road Goes on Forever” at his house in Bandera. A local couple, known for their wild escapades in the bars and down by the river, suddenly disappeared one day. Keen never knew what happened to them, so he invented a story about the rest of their lives. The song was still half-finished when he drove up to Nashville to work on his second studio album, which would eventually be released as West Textures.
“My producer, Jim Rooney, told me, ‘You don’t have an anchor song,” Keen recalls. “I made a smart-ass remark that ‘This ain’t a mall.’ He said, ‘Maybe we should put the album on hold for a while.’ This was a Friday, and I told him, ‘Give me till Sunday.’ I went back to the three verses I already had, and that refrain just popped into my head: ‘The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.’ I said, ‘Hey, that works.’ Rooney thought so too.
“I’ve always had a knack for coming up with refrains,” Keen continues. “That helps a lot. Look at Dylan and Prine; their songs are complicated, but the titles are really good, and that helps people remember them. I’m not like those Nashville guys who write the title first. I write the song first and take the title from that. But I know a good title when I hear it.”
Keen has written poetry since he was 8 years old. It was the one thing he was good at in school. “I went from being the class dullard,” he remembers, “to the kid whose poems were on the bulletin board in the hallway.” He grew up on the classic country songs of Hank Williams, Ray Price and Willie Nelson. But when he went off to college at Texas A&M, the college station would play Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker.
“That turned me onto a vast world of songs that were fascinating and had nothing to do with radio hits,” Keen says. “They opened up a whole world of things to write about. You don’t have to write the same song over and over. Before that, country radio was all about love and alcohol — and if anything, it’s even narrower now.”
Keen lived on Church Street, just one block off campus, with his boyhood pal (and future longtime fiddler) Bryan Duckworth. The two were singing songs on their soon-to-be-famous front porch when a skinny journalism major with unruly hair impulsively braked his bicycle and joined them. That was Lyle Lovett, who booked the college’s folk-music coffeehouse, the Basement. He and Keen quickly bonded and eventually co-wrote “The Front Porch Song,” which appeared on each of their respective debut albums.
“Lyle lived two houses away,” Keen says, “and he had some seriously good recording equipment. He was the first person I knew who made good demos. That was a revelation. There were a lot of things I learned from Lyle. He was a better rhythm player than I was. We wrote that porch song together and a few more. We were normal friends, except we always had a guitar in our hands. If you have someone who’s just a little better than you, but not a lot better, someone who has just done what you’re about to do, that helps a lot.”
The new album’s title track is another porch song — a laid-back ode to getting away from it all, skinny-dipping in the river and sipping a cold beer on a hillside cabin porch as the sun sets over the western hills. As a best-case scenario for post-retirement life, it’s pretty inviting. More realistic is the album’s next-to-last song, “Walking On,” a loping country-folk number about moving forward no matter what. “I’ll walk on till I’m hungry,” Keen sings, “talk on till I’m dry. This road I’m on is all I know, so I’ll keep walking on.”
“I wrote that one in Marfa,” Keen says. “I’m really proud of that song. Lyrically it really does capture my life really, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Keen is now moving at a slower pace, but he’s still moving. He’ll be teaching a mini-course on the music business at Kerrville’s Shriner University in October. He hopes that will lead to other opportunities to help young musicians learn the easy way the lessons he learned the hard way.
“I’ve fought every fight and pushed through every door a person encounters in the music business,” he continues. “And when I got knocked down, I got back up and kept moving forward. My wife’s uncle calls me ‘The Old Plow Horse.’ That’s what you do. You’ve got your muse — in my case, my wife — you’ve got your direction and you’ve got your will, and you just keep going.”
Cover promo photo by Melanie Nashan