Robert Earl Keen capped 41 years on the road with one final stand at John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas, on September 4. And what a stand it was.
When the Texas troubadour announced he was retiring from touring on January 14, I immediately made two phone calls. Two old friends. We would attend REK’s final performance, without fail. And we did. After a five-day, 1,900-mile, round-trip pilgrimage from Nashville to Helotes (with plenty of stops, including George’s Bar in Waco, Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, and dozens of liquor stores in search of old “dusty” bourbon), the trip was a blur that I’m just now sorting out as I type.
For the last 25 years, I’ve been flocking to REK’s concerts, ever since my college friend from Dumas, Texas, introduced me to the sounds of Robert Earl Keen’s 1996 album, No. 2 Live Dinner. And I’ve flocked to a lot of them. Somewhere in the 75-100 range. For the last decade as a music journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with REK on numerous occasions. Simply put, he’s the best. The best.
Robert Earl’s last stand at Floore’s, a Texas institution for 80 years, was a bucket-list journey.
I’m Comin’ Home
Aptly dubbed the I’m Comin’ Home Tour, after his beloved 1994 tune, Robert Earl trekked across the country during the last eight months. He made around 100 stops, singing goodbyes in the form of fan-favorite songs like “The Road Goes On Forever,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” “I’m Comin’ Home,” and more. REK used to joke that he couldn’t perform “Merry Christmas From the Family” until after Labor Day, but I’d be willing to bet every show this spring and summer featured his ode to yuletide dysfunction.
Robert Earl’s farewell tour made stops at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (I was there, too), Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom, Austin City Limits, and more. He concluded the tour with a three-night stand at Floore’s on Sept. 1st, 3rd, and 4th. My first trip to Floore’s felt full circle, considering my introduction to REK, No. 2 Live Dinner, which featured 11 songs that were recorded live at Floore’s in 1995.
But during his final tour, Robert Earl suffered hardships. There were whispers about his health. He noticeably lost weight. He began sitting while performing, something I had never seen him do for any length of time at any show. His bus caught fire. And his band was breaking, literally (drummer Tom Van Schaik broke his elbow).
Nonetheless, Robert Earl and his troupe of merry musicians endured until Floore’s, including Bill Whitbeck (bass), Tom Van Schaik (drums), Brian Beken (fiddle/mandolin/guitar), Noah Jeffries (guitar), and guest Lloyd Maines (steel).
Special guests for Robert Earl’s final show included David Beck’s Tejano Weekend (Beck is the son of Bill Whitbeck), as well as Cody Canada & the Departed. After Beck opened the show with his festive Tejano stylings, Cody knocked the proverbial roof off the place with an hour-long set of vintage Cross Canadian Ragweed songs, including “17,” “Alabama,” “Boys From Oklahoma,” “Dimebag,” and more.
Cody opening for REK for the final time at Floore’s felt apropos. To this day, the greatest concert I’ve ever seen was circa 2006 when Cross Canadian Ragweed opened for REK at the New Daisy in Memphis.
But the night belonged to Robert Earl. He addressed the Floore’s crowd, noting the hardships, including back pain that triggered a set of allergic reactions and the loss of weight. He also revealed he developed Bell’s palsy. If Keen, 66, was having any second thoughts about retiring from the road, a higher power was putting an end to that musing.
REK opened the show with a mash-up of “Amazing Grace” and “A Border Tale,” which, I feel confident saying, has never been done before.
“For Love,” “Runnin’ With the Night,” and “Corpus Christi Bay” followed. As did “Mr. Wolf and Mamabear,” “Rose Hotel,” “Broken End of Love,” “Merry Christmas From the Family,” “Copenhagen,” “Mariano,” “I Gotta Go,” and “The Road Goes on Forever.” He even pulled out Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitar and played a solo set, covering Walker’s “Gypsy Songman,” Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues,” Oliver Tree’s “Cowboys Don’t Cry,” and Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway.”
REK capped the evening with “I’m Comin’ Home.”
Thanks, Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl struck his first note around 10 p.m., playing somewhere around 30 songs. Honestly, I lost count as the 2.5-hour show drifted past midnight and the Lone Star beers flowed like the nearby Guadalupe River. The packed crowd at Floore’s would have stayed for another 2.5 hours.
But, alas, the road does not go on forever. Lone Star State luminary Robert Earl Keen has come home to Texas. Robert Earl will be missed more than typed words can express.
All I can think to say is: thanks, Robert Earl. Thank you for the pilgrimage. Thank you for 25 years of memories.