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Among the large contingent of talented songwriters who emerged in Texas in the 1980s and '90s, Robert Earl Keen struck an unusual balance between sensitive story-portraits ("Corpus Christi Bay") and raucous barroom fun ("That Buckin' Song"). These two song types in Keen's output were unified by a mordant sense of humor that strongly influenced the early practitioners of what would become known as alternative country music. Keen, the son of an oil executive father and an attorney mother, was a native of Houston. His parents enjoyed both folk and country music, and his own style would land, like that of his close contemporary Nanci Griffith, between those genres. Keen wrote poetry while he was in high school, but it wasn't until he went to journalism school at musically fertile Texas A&M that he learned to play the guitar. He and Lyle Lovett became friends and co-wrote a song, "This Old Porch," which both later recorded.
Keen made a splash in Austin with his debut album, No Kinda Dancer, self-financed in 1984 to the tune of $4,500 dollars. He moved to Nashville during the heady experimentalism of the '80s that saw Lovett and k.d. lang hit the country Top Ten, but he soon returned to Austin. Texas landscapes and residents provided Keen with creative inspiration, as his second album, West Textures, made clear; that album yielded one of Keen's signature numbers, an ambitious crime-spree song called "The Road Goes on Forever." Now recording for Sugar Hill, Keen recorded a live album shortly after West Textures but waited several years to release a studio follow-up, 1993's A Bigger Piece of Sky. After that album (which contained "Corpus Christi Bay") came Gringo Honeymoon (1994), which merged Keen's story songs with the emerging sounds of alt-country: guitars were laid down by the influential Austin musician Gurf Morlix, who later produced albums for both Keen and Lucinda Williams, and a young Gillian Welch provided harmony vocals.
Once again, after taking his career to a new stage, Keen recorded a live album (No. 2 Live Dinner, 1996) and took time to accumulate new material. The 1997 album Picnic, his first for the Arista Texas label, again moved in the direction of alternative country, featuring Keen in a duet with the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, while 1998's Walking Distance featured sparer textures. Whatever production style surrounded his songs, Keen's musical personality seemed consistent, and his live shows, widely known thanks to a touring schedule that often approached 200 dates a year in the '90s, grew organically in depth and control. In the early 2000s, Keen signed with the Lost Highway label and released the album Gravitational Forces (2001). He also devoted time to his influential annual concert series and talent festival, Texas Uprising, which took place at several venues around Texas and the Far West. 2003 saw the release of his eighth studio album, the amiable Farm Fresh Onions, as well as The Party Never Ends: Songs You Know from the Times You Can't Remember, a compilation of Keen's Sugar Hill days. His next release was 2005's What I Really Mean for the Koch label. It was followed in 2006 by Live at the Ryman. Rose Hotel, his first recording with famed producer Lloyd Maines, appeared in 2009 on Lost Highway. Keen decided to experiment for his next album, and began writing on the road instead of in his small, solitary cabin in the hinterlands of Texas. Once again recruiting Maines as producer, he cut 11 new songs -- among them nine originals including a re-recording of "Paint the Town Beige" from 1993's Bigger Piece of Sky -- and a couple of covers. It was released as Ready for Confetti on Lost Highway in the summer of 2011.
Robert Earl Keen (born January 11, 1956) is an American singer-songwriter and entertainer living in the central Texas hill country. Debuting with 1984's No Kinda Dancer, the Houston native has recorded 18 full-length albums for both independent and major record labels, while his songs have also been covered by several different artists from the country, folk and Texas country music scenes (including George Strait, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, The Highwaymen, Nanci Griffith, and the Dixie Chicks). Although both his albums and live performances span many different styles, from folk, country, and bluegrass to rock, he is most commonly affiliated with the Americana movements. In fact, he was the first "Americana" artist to appear on the cover of Gavin magazine when the style was officially recognized as its own genre in 1998. Additionally, although Keen has toured extensively both nationally and internationally throughout his career, he has long been heralded as one of the Lone Star State's most popular and consistently acclaimed musical ambassadors, leading to his induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 along with Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt.Henkle, Doug, "FolkLib Index" Davis, John T. "Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame will induct Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Townes Van Zandt". Austin American Statesman. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
Keen grew up in southwest Houston. His father was a geologist and his mother an attorney. He has an older brother and a younger sister. He attended Sharpstown High School, graduating in 1974. As a teenager, Keen was an avid reader who excelled in writing and literature classes, and a fan of both the English rock band Cream and, thanks to the influence of his older brother, country music by artists like Willie Nelson. But it was his younger sister, Kathy, who introduced him to the Houston music scene in the early seventies. "My sister was a couple years younger than I was, and she was like the world-champion Foosball player of downtown Houston," Keen explained in a 2011 cover story for LoneStarMusic Magazine. Keen would accompany his sister to the bars where she played, many of which featured singer-songwriters playing both covers and original tunes. He started playing guitar himself shortly thereafter, teaching himself to play classic country covers out of a song book the summer before starting college at Texas A&M.Skanse, Richard. "Robert Earl Keen: A Man Apart". Lone Star Music Magazine. Retrieved January 4, 2013.
Keen attended Texas A&M University in College Station, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1980 and began writing songs and playing bluegrass and folk music with friends including his childhood running buddy (and a future longtime fiddle player in his band), Bryan Duckworth. It was during his college years that Keen also became friends with fellow Aggie student and neighbor Lyle Lovett. The two spent many an afternoon and evening jamming together on the front porch of the house at 302 Church Street that Keen rented from landlord Jack Boyett, which eventually inspired a song they wrote together entitled “The Front Porch Song.” Both artists would later record the song on their respective debut albums.
In 1980, Keen graduated from Texas A&M and moved to Austin, Texas. Soon he was performing in Austin's nightclubs and live music venues like the Cactus Cafe and Gruene Hall in nearby New Braunfels, building a solid regional following. In 1983, Keen won the prestigious New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival. That same year, he began making his self-produced first album, No Kinda Dancer, with the help of his bandmates and the up-and-coming talents of Lovett and Nanci Griffith. He leased the album to Rounder Records, which released on its Philo Records imprint in 1984. Keen began touring outside of Texas and moved with his wife, Kathleen, to Nashville, Tennessee in 1986 — at the encouragement of Steve Earle. Keen returned to Texas 22 months later after failing to find mainstream success, though his time in Nashville did net him a publishing deal, a new independent label deal and a national booking agent (Keith Case). All three would pay tremendous dividends after the release of his second and third albums, 1988’s The Live Album and 1989’s West Textures (both produced by Jim Rooney and released on Sugar Hill Records) expanded his fan base both in Texas and in the rest of the country. Keen’s tour dates around that time included a triple-bill run with Texas songwriting legends Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. West Textures featured the first recording of what would soon become Keen’s signature anthem, “The Road Goes on Forever.” Fellow Texan Joe Ely recorded the song on his 1993 album Love and Danger, along with another Keen song, “Whenever Kindness Fails.” Keen’s own version of “Whenever Kindness Fails” appeared on his fourth album, 1993’s Garry Velletri-produced A Bigger Piece Of Sky, which, along with the following year’s Gringo Honeymoon (whose title track and light-hearted “Merry Christmas from the Family” also became fan favorites and live staples) and 1996’s No. 2 Live Dinner, cemented Keen’s reputation as one of the Americana scene’s most popular live draws.
Building on the success of those albums, Keen has continued to write, record, and tour across the nation. His 1997 album, Picnic, marked the beginning of his on-again, off-again relationship with major labels (both that album and 1998’s Walking Distance were issued on Arista Records, and 2001’s Gravitational Forces, 2009’s The Rose Hotel and 2011’s Ready for Confetti were released on Lost Highway Records.) Keen’s other albums include 2003’s Farm Fresh Onions (Audium/Koch Records) and 2005’s What I Really Mean and 2006’s Live at the Ryman (both on E1 Music). The producers he’s worked on those albums have included John Keane, Gurf Morlix, Lloyd Maines, and his longtime lead guitarist, Rich Brotherton. Keen continues to tour throughout the United States.Davis, John T. "Robert Earl Keen: Can you patch together a feeling that’s going to stick with somebody ten years from now?". No Depression. Retrieved January 5, 2013. Cite error: The named reference skanse was invoked but never defined (see the help page). McLeese, Don. "Straight outta Bandera: For Robert Earl Keen, music and business coexist at home, deep in the heart of Texas". No Depression. Retrieved January 5, 2013.