A FEW MINUTES WITH… Robert Earl Keen
By Don Wilcock
Songs about cities, trains, rain and highways all tend to capture the imagination of music fans. One of my favorites in this category is “The Road Goes on Forever” by Robert Earl Keen, who plays The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Tuesday (July 18).
It’s the story of Sonny, a pot dealer rejected by the Navy, who creams a drunk out-of-towner with a pool cue after defending the honor of Sherry, who “had a reputation as a girl who’s been around.”
Sonny and Sherry take off together for Miami, and they get caught in a motel room with a briefcase full of money and pistols in their boots.
It’s all downhill from there.
At the end of the song, Sonny gets the chair, and Sherry takes off in a new Mercedes with a cold six-pack and a newspaper announcing his execution.
The song is a four-minute Bonnie & Clyde movie with a repeating line that forever crops up in my head like a neon sign punching through 2am bleakness: “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”
First released on his 1989 West Textures CD, “The Road Goes on Forever” fast became Keen’s signature song, but fellow Texan Joe Ely figuratively stole the number and made it his own on his 1993 Love and Danger LP.
The song crops up again on Keen’s 2016 Live Dinner Reunion double album that includes guest appearances by Keen’s old college buddy Lyle Lovett, as well as Cody Canada and Bruce Robison. The album features favorites from throughout Keen’s career including “This Old Porch” sung with Lovett; Robison singing “No Kinda Dancer”; and Cory Morrow doing “I’ll Go on Downtown.” Ely sings “The Road Goes on Forever.”
“Joe is a fantastic musician and even better friend!” says Keen in an email answering several of my questions. “It was me and my band backing Joe. My bandmates include Bill Whitbeck, Rich Brotherton, Tom Van Schaik, Marty Muse, Kym Warner and Brian Beken.”
Born in Houston in 1956, Keen is a leading example of the Texas school of singer-songwriters who incorporate folk, rock and country influences into his material. A poetry writer in high school, he earned a BA in English from Texas A&M in 1978. His songs have been covered by George Strait, Lyle Lovett, The Highwaymen, Nanci Griffith and the Dixie Chicks. He was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2012.
In May, The Houston Press named him Texas’ number one country live act calling him “the genre’s elder statesman and keeper of the flame, and nobody in the entire state puts on a better show.”
One of my questions to him was, “You’ve said that you don’t want to be labeled as strictly a Texas musician. Does that make your recent naming by The Houston Press as Texas’ No. 1 country act a double-edged sword?”
His answer: “We put a lot of thought and effort into our live shows, and we never play the same set list twice. It was truly a real honor to be recognized as the #1 Live Act in Texas… now working on making that happen in the remaining 49 states.”
Here are the other questions I asked that he answered.
Q: Did your studies at Texas A&M make you a better storyteller? A better songwriter?
A: Life in general has made me a better storyteller and songwriter. My years at Texas A&M definitely added some color to my songwriting.
Q: You told one reviewer you were shy as a younger man. What was it about addressing your audience between songs that was so easy for you?
A: I just love my fans, and I love connecting with them during the show.
Q: What’s your favorite story about Lloyd Maines, your frequent collaborator and producer?
A: There are so many great Lloyd stories, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I will say he is truly one of the most kind and honorable men you would ever want to know… and you might want to check your tuning on that B string!!
Q: Who will be with you in Albany?
A: Along with my band, we are happy to have Ruston Kelly opening the show for us at The Egg.
Here are the questions he didn’t answer:
Q: What’s your favorite Lyle Lovett story?
Q: Ray Wylie Hubbard’s dad read Dickens to him when he was a kid. What was your introduction to literature?
Q: Why did you produce your own first album? Was it hard to
Q: What was your reaction when Ricky Skaggs threw in the towel on his country repertoire and went back to bluegrass?
Q: What can you tell us about your next CD?
Guess we’ll never know…