5 Questions With Robert Earl Keen as He Returns to His Home on the Road

by Jim Casey

Robert Earl Keen is a troubadour in the truest sense of the word. Well, not the “French medieval lyric poet” definition. Instead, the “poet who writes verse to music” definition. Feel free to say “Texas troubadour” if you’re a fan of alliteration.

For the last 40-plus years, the Lone Star State luminary has been building a Texas-sized fanbase one lyric at a time. One show at a time. REK’s songwriting will hook you. His live show will reel you in.

However, the pandemic put the kibosh on REK’s much-needed musical outlet . . . and his income stream. Robert Earl actually has 10 employees, including salaried positions, health insurance, and IRAs for his band and small team.

Now, back on the road where he belongs with more than 30 scheduled tour dates, Robert Earl Keen took a break from the bus to answer Outsider’s 5 Questions.

1. What does it mean to you and your band to be back on the road earning a living again after such a tough year?

Robert Earl Keen: I can’t speak for the band. I know they’d rather be playing than not. However, from the beginning, I decided to keep everyone on the payroll, and, consequently, we spent much of the downtime rehearsing, making videos, and restructuring the sound of the band. We built a video studio, Snake Barn Movie Ranch Studios, where we made a full-length (60 minutes), all-new content project, Western Chill. Later this year, we’ll re-release the video, release Western Chill as an audio project, along with a graphic novel outlining the trials and tribulations of a central character and his dog, Mac. As to how I handled this financially? I did everything from getting PPP and crisis loans to refinancing my house. I’ll admit, there were times I was scared and had misgivings, but today, I can say it was worth all the effort. I could not have done it without the support and guidance from my wife, Kathleen. 

2. For a lot of fans, your Feelin’ Good Again Tour will be their first live show in months. Are you feelin’ it?

Robert Earl Keen: That’s easy. I’ve talked to fans after the few shows we’ve played lately and they are so happy. It’s almost like we delivered a vaccine in the form of music. I’ve never experienced the open-ended excitement and gratitude the fans have showered on us. Believe me, you can recognize someone who is pulling your chain when it comes to music appreciation. All I’ve experienced lately is unabashed adulation.

3. What has the past year taught you about yourself as a person or artist—positive or negative?

Robert Earl Keen: On the negative side, I learned it takes work for me to stay engaged in the world—be it current events or keeping up with friends. There is a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing I reread occasionally that reminds us to stay engaged because people were not meant to live life as an orphan. It is not a good practice for the individual nor society at large. The COVID experience made me acutely aware of my proclivity towards solitude. I took to reading Cormac’s passage about once a week as a reminder. Oddly enough, there are so many positive things I wouldn’t know where to start. The most fun thing was how I started drawing cartoons based on drinking or making coffee in the morning. I set them next to the coffee pot late at night so the family would see them when they got up to make coffee. I’ve got a pile of them. Most were pretty dumb, but all were fun. A couple even got applause.

4. What are you looking forward to the most while on tour?

Robert Earl Keen: I’ve been touring so long, touring has become who I am. I’m fairly capable as a husband and father. I’ve learned how to be a business person. What I’m great at is managing the road. I guess I was meant to be a touring musician. It’s not like I’m riding a bicycle, it’s like I am the bicycle.

5. New music, new podcasts?

Robert Earl Keen: Unless you caught the two or three days that Western Chill was on the internet, then the audio release of it will be new for you. With the exception of a couple of unreleased older songs, Western Chill is all new content. It’s cool and has great variety—all band inclusive. We all contributed songs and arrangements. Other than that, our Americana Podcast is doing fantastic. We’ve done 28 episodes and interviewed everyone from Todd Snider to The White Buffalo to Billy Strings to Kam Franklin of The Suffers.