Texas Songwriting Legend Robert Earl Keen Announces Retirement From the Road

The roots musician will tour through September

Robert Earl Keen at SXSW in 2018 (Photo by Gary Miller)

The road may go on forever, but a Texas songwriting legend says he won’t be out on it anymore. Robert Earl Keen, a titan of Texas roots music, announced that after more than 30 years he’s hanging up his hat and retiring. At least from playing out on the road and for live audiences.

“Thank you for all the wonderful shows throughout the years” Keen writes in his official announcement, “and, although it might not be apparent here, I promise, The Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends.” And so he settles into a quasi-retirement. He fully intends to keep writing and recording, as well as interviewing fellow musicians on his Americana Podcast. His official statement tells of plans to tour extensively until September 4 where he will play his final shows in Helotes at Floore’s Country Store, followed by a fan appreciation day on Labor Day. No official plans have been announced to include an Austin show in his farewell tour, but here’s hoping.

The Houston native’s style has always been difficult to pin down. Sometimes it's country, sometimes it’s folk. Sometimes it's bluegrass, and every so often it’s a little bit rock & roll. To take it from the title of his podcast, you might simply call his singer-songwriter style of storytelling Americana.

Keen, the son of an oil man father and an attorney mother, followed his boyhood friend and eventual long time fiddle player Bryan Duckworth to Texas A&M University in College Station where he would eventually graduate with a degree in English. From a young age his focus was not on the oil fields like his father, but with words, stories, and the guitar. While attending college, he found himself living in a rundown house with a big front porch on Church Avenue, right across from the Presbytarian church. (Often in live performances, during one of his many spoken interludes, he talks of waking up on Sundays and playing out on the porch in his underwear, just in time for the churchgoers to be heading to their cars.) It was this house that gave the name to Keen’s first band. His friend, fellow musician and sometimes roommate Lyle Lovett, who Texas music fans might have heard of, came over to the house to ask Robert and his roommates, who spent their evenings picking on the porch, if they wanted to play at the student union. The boys protested, saying that they weren’t really a band and didn’t have a name. Lovett suggested the Front Porch Boys, and Keen’s first band was born. This same house, affectionately called the Front Porch House, gave inspiration to one of Keen’s most beloved songs, “The Front Porch Song,” co-written with Lovett.

After graduating in the late 70s, Keen followed the yellow brick road to Austin. The city offered him something he didn’t have back in College Station, an active music scene. He spent his time playing in venues like the Cactus Cafe and the famous Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.

It was in Austin that he married his wife after a first date involving a Nanci Griffith concert at Austin City Limits and drinks at the Texas Chili Parlor. It was around this time that he recorded his first studio album, No Kinda Dancer. Along with “The Front Porch Song,” the eponymous track is among his most popular songs. However, this freshman release garnered little attention at the time. Following the advice of fellow Texan Steve Earle, Keen decided to try his hand at Nashville. Living the broke musician life there was fun and provided practice in the local music joints, but never gave him the big break many musicians hoped for in the Music City. The song, “Then Came the Lo Mein” tells of hard times, bumps in the road of his new marriage, and ultimately the nervous breakdown that led to the decision to return to Texas. The pair moved back to Austin and a struggling career. He managed to pick up a residency at Gruene Hall, and shortly thereafter recorded his second album West Textures, which saw the real launch of his career. Radio play gave him a devoted fan base in his home state that remains just as loyal to this day. It was this album that saw his signature ballad, "The Road Goes On Forever," a tale of crime and love that has become a college student anthem and a top fan favorite, often closing his live set. Keen toured relentlessly over the past three decades across the States and abroad, but rarely are the audiences as large and enthusiastic as in the Lone Star State.

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