Stand near the stage at most any Robert Earl Keen concert and you’ll find yourself in something like a raucous frat party.
Fans of the Americana music legend sway out of time to their favorite party tunes while beer splashes from their plastic cups. You might see someone hoist a Texas A&M flag (Keen is Aggie alumni, along with his one-time college roommate Lyle Lovett) and someone else sloppily making out with a girl he just met.
They revel in classics like “The Road Goes on Forever,” Keen’s tightly-crafted tale of a well-meaning loser and his girlfriend who rob a drug dealer and kill a cop. (Spoiler alert: the girl gets the money and the guy gets the electric chair.) You can barely hear Keen over the crowd as they roar the chorus, The road goes on forever and the party never ends.
But stand a little farther back and you’ll find a different crowd – maybe a little older, definitely a bit more sober – but comprised of long-time fans who have come to appreciate the Texas singer-songwriter for his smart songs that transform the ordinariness of life into something beautiful and unique. In the 20-plus years I’ve faithfully followed Keen and his band, I’ve been a part of both crowds. As I aged from a young Navy sailor without a lot of responsibilities to a middle-aged woman with too many to count, Keen’s music was a constant in my life. I could always rely on him to perform somewhere in or near Hampton Roads at least once a year, and he credits his touring schedule for keeping fans like me engaged. Asked how he’s managed to inspire such loyalty, Keen was characteristically flip.
“They just show up,” he said. “It’s not like I buy them drinks or take them out for ice cream after the show.”
He did acknowledge that after decades on the road, he’s learned something about how to put a concert together.
“I try to be consistent. I play good songs from way back as well as some new ones and people get the experience they expect and they want to repeat it and bring their friends to see it.”
But it’s not just the live shows. For longtime fans it’s mostly about the songs, the genesis of which Keen attributes to imagery that gets stuck in his head and needs to come out.
“I have no rules for subject matter,” he said. “My writing process is very visual; I see things and just start writing about them.”
The result is a body of work that runs like a soundtrack to life. In the early 2000s, going through a divorce and adrift in my life, a verse of “Not a Drop of Rain” exorcised the loneliness for a bit because someone understood and articulated it better than I ever could.
The clouds are building slowly on the skyline to the east
The wind and dust are dancing like the devil across the lake
I could try to find a bottle or try to find a priest
Salvation won’t be traveling either road I take
So I turn my collar to the wind that echoes this refrain
It’s been a long hot summer, not a drop of rain
At sea aboard an aircraft carrier the next Christmas, I lay in my rack with “Merry Christmas from the Family” on my Discman and gave in to homesickness.
Carve the turkey, turn the ballgame on
Make Bloody Marys ’cause we all want one
Send somebody to the Stop ‘N Go
We need some celery and a can of fake snow
A bag of lemons and some Diet Sprite
A box of tampons and some Salem Lights
Hallelujah, everybody say cheese
Merry Christmas from the family
That song felt a hell of a lot more like Christmas’s I remembered than the schmaltz of more traditional holiday tunes.
Fans I’ve connected with over the years tell similar stories of how the music affects them. Keen’s ability to connect with the everyman in us all has led to awards and recognition, but much like the characters he writes about, he’s always existed on the fringe of mainstream success. He’s learned to be OK with this.
“For years I was pounding the wall and wondering why I wasn’t getting the attention, but over the last few years I’ve decided that what I’ve done works for the long haul,” Keen said.
Other country artists have covered his material, giving his songs greater radio airplay than his own twang-tinged versions ever received. That’s a badge of honor for someone who considers himself a songwriter first and performer second.
“The measure of success for any song is how much it gets out there,” he said. “Songwriting is one of the oldest forms of communication there is, and when other people like my songs and want to record them, my language gets to be retold and passed on in the ancient tradition of storytellers.”
When Keen plays the Norva this Thursday, he’ll tell those stories, some old and some new, with a band that’s been together more than 20 years. As one of the few artists who offer health insurance and a retirement plan to his backing musicians, he’s inspired loyalty that pays off in the form of a tight, well-rehearsed group of players who genuinely seem to have fun onstage.
He changes up the set list every night so there’s no telling what might surface during the show, but there are a few favorites fans can always count on … “Feelin’ Good Again,” “Gringo Honeymoon,” and of course the song that brings down the house every night. Because after more than 30 years, for Robert Earl Keen and his fans, the road really does go on forever.
Robert Earl Keen plays the NorVa, located at 317 Monticello Ave, on Thursday, July 2o. Tickets are $25. For more info, click here.