ROBERT EARL KEEN is as Texas as a beer can flying out of a Coupe de Ville going 90, but also as Texas as a quiet field of sagebrush at dusk. A native of Houston, the 43-year-old Keen honed his skills with college friend Lyle Lovett and other songwriters who'd play on the front porches of their houses near Texas A & M University.
Keen, the Texas A & M-bred troubadour.
In the 20 or so years since, Keen has grown into a skilled songwriter and ace performer whose live sets are wide enough to include moments of reflection and solitude as well as typically Texan bouts of hell-raising and hat-waving.
These qualities place Keen in a niche with a few other players whose careers have earned them more respect than riches. He's part of a select group including Joe Ely, Dave Alvin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and, though they're a bit more successful, Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett. All live in a country music netherworld that's not quite Nashville, yet not quite LA. In some cases, they've had to settle for recognition from their peers, getting songs covered by other, better known, acts. All have fashioned lengthy careers that started with a string of independent releases, a fiercely loyal following, and, eventually, a major label breakout.
From 1984, when he scraped together $4,500 for his first album, No Kinda Dancer, through to his 1997 major label debut, Picnic (Arista Austin), Keen plugged away, taking enough musical snapshots of his home state to fill four studio albums and two live ones. He played to increasingly large crowds all over the Southwest, building a reputation as an earnest performer and as a clever, often ironic songwriter.
With Picnic, Keen stretched out from traditional styles into a more of-the-moment type of country-rock. The album lodged itself at number one on the Americana charts and stayed there for three months.
Yet some critics felt that Keen had strayed from the strengths of his songwriting. With the follow-up, last year's Walking Distance, Keen returned to his roots. He and his longtime touring band—guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik, and fiddler Bryan Duckworth—relied more on traditional instrumentation and arrangements.
It's also an album united in theme, if peripherally. Keen himself has described the album's overall feel as having the "sound of one's own footsteps." In other words, there's a focus on life's small, intimate details. It represents a return to the wry examination, commentary, and celebration of outsiders that characterized his pre-major label releases. Keen is once again walking down that open road; the only difference is that now, after the success of Picnic, he's taking a whole lot more of us along with him.