A Robert Earl Keen song is like a Larry McMurtry novel. You might find pickup trucks and beer in his music, but you’re going to see trucks and beer differently after he’s done. And you won’t be alone. Five minutes into one of his concerts, everyone in the audience will be singing along.
Keen has gone from being a cult-performer in Texas venues to a legend of Americana. On October 6, he’s playing at The Crest Theater and Sacramentans will get a chance to experience the narrative power of his lyrics that sets his songs apart.
“I’ve always had a great deal of pride in my songwriting,” Keen said in a recent phone interview. “When people are in the audience singing along, as far as being a songwriter goes, I’ve done my job. If you can pass one song from one person to another to another to another until you fill up a room, that’s gratifying. That’s the magic there, people actually listen to my songs enough to memorize them.”
Keen has been performing with his band for 25 years. He’s released 19 albums, the most recent, Live Dinner Reunion, came out in 2016. The album shows the span of styles that Keen has had success with from outlaw country to bluegrass to rock. Regardless of style, Keen understands songwriting and in 2012 he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 along with Lyle Lovett, Danny King, and Townes Van Zandt.
Songwriting alone doesn’t account for all those people singing along when Keen performs live. He also understands how to work the stage. He understands how to reach the audience.
“There are people who are great, great musicians and they don’t know anything about the stage and you couldn’t teach them what the stage is about,” said Keen. “They just don’t feel it. Knowing the stage, that, to me, is an art in itself. If you can work the stage and you can add artistry, you have the potential to go from apprentice to master. There’s only a handful of people who are like that. I’m always struggling to be that.”
You can tell that Keen is never satisfied. He works the setlist and changes the line-up and his delivery, always trying to improve the experience for the audience.
“I am always struggling to make this work. Whether you call what I do art, my biggest focus is always to make the show better. When it’s working, I can see it, I can feel it when I walk on stage and I’m really one with the audience.”
In his 35 years of performing, Keen has learned a few things about creating that connection.
“I always felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff for the longest time with performance, thinking you have to grab them in the first five seconds,” said Keen. “And there is something to that, but you don’t even have to sing to grab the audience. You just step out there and stand up correctly. You have to bring some amount of confidence and you can do that just walking out on stage.”
It’s been a long road for Keen and success has come slowly, but steadily. He recently toured the midwest, a market that has never been strong for him, and all the venues were nearly sold out.
His increased popularity could be due to his new latest venture, the Americana podcast, which launched in April of this year and has 50K downloads. Keen collaborates with his daughter who convinced him to start the podcast.
“It’s been invaluable to have the youth perspective,” said Keen. “I used to wonder why presidential candidates would have some 27-28 year old be a director of operations and I’d think “What the hell is going on there?’ but you can’t beat the world of youth and energy, especially if those people are motivated and passionate.
“I got into it because I felt really isolated from what was going on in the field of music. I was still listening to the same stuff I was listening to 20 years ago. I wasn’t broadening my horizons.”
The podcast has allowed Keen to discover a new world of music.
“We’re really touching the outliers of the Americana World,” said Keen. “I’m most comfortable finding those people that I think are amazing that people don’t really know about. What’s really cool is that we’ve pulled back the curtain on some people and I’m hoping that we’ve advanced some careers. There’s so much good stuff out there, especially today.”
In talking to Keen, you realize it’s never about him. He wants to put on the best concert he can because he wants the audience to have a great experience. He wants to interview musicians to help bring them a following.
“I’m never thinking ‘look at me’ because I just don’t think that way. I want to come at it from a songwriter’s perspective, since that’s where my strengths lie, and I want to shine the best light as possible on the people I interview, to try to find the gold nuggets that are happening in their songs.”
When you interview someone, you have to be completely present and that’s not a skill everyone has. Listening to Keen’s podcast, you can hear him adjust and change with the person he’s talking to. It’s a real conversation, not a list of questions.
“It’s like standing on the cliff again,” said Keen. “I jot down a few questions and take a few notes, but the most important thing is that you have to listen to the person because they might tell you the answers to the next three questions and if you’re not listening, you’re gonna sound like an idiot. You’re always somewhere between where you thought you were going to go and where you’re really going.”
That last line sounds like it came right out of one of his songs.
Keen plays The Crest Theater on Sunday, October 6. Doors open at 6:30 pm and the show starts at 7:30pm.