In 1996, Robert Earl Keen recorded No. 2 Live Dinner at the legendary John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas. At the time, he had no way of knowing it at the time, but the disc would become his best seller. To celebrate that record, Keen decided to return to the scene of the original crime, with a new disc entitled Live Dinner Reunion – out on November 18.
Keen told Billboard that the new live album gave him some new inspiration. “The experience was rejuvenating and somewhat overwhelming,” he says. “We just planned on playing a gig, and saying ‘This is our twentieth anniversary of this record.’ But, about ten days out, I thought it would be good to have some of my friends, so I called Bruce Robison, Lyle Lovett, Cory Morrow, and Joe Ely. Reckless Kelly was already set up as far as playing the music. Everyone showed up, and it was like that old Tex Ritter song ‘Hillbilly Heaven,’ All of a sudden, everything was just perfect.” Keen said all egos were left at the door. “There was no weirdness, and everyone was just there to play music. Everybody was just laughing and telling stories, which is just what I thought the whole thing was about. It was so invigorating in terms of what I do, and of course, we had 4,500 people there. The audience was there for us, and I just thought it was outstanding.”
Recording the double-disc set brought Keen back to the reason he started playing music in the first place – simply because he loves it. “I just like to play music with other people, maybe because I realize that I’m never quite as good as the people I’m playing with. I just want to play, and I don’t care what the result is,” he adds. “I don’t get all twisted about that. I just like to play and enjoy myself. In general, that’s what happens with our shows. This one was extra special because everyone just jumped in and did a great job. We were on the fly. Cory Morrow said ‘What are we gonna do?’ I asked him ‘You know that ‘I’ll Go On Downtown’ song, right? You do half of it, and I’ll do some of it. There was nothing about it that was scripted. We just jumped up and did stuff, and that’s the way I like to do it.”
To promote the new disc, Keen will be taking to the road for an upcoming holiday tour in December. One song that he will absolutely be performing for his fans is the modern-day classic “Merry Christmas From The Family,” which also appears on Live Dinner Reunion. What caused him to pen the irreverent holiday gem? He said it came down to a case of writers’ block.
“I was writing a song a long time ago, and I was writing for an album. I was trying to make a serious record, and I kind of just ground myself to a halt. I thought ‘I’ve got to write these songs.’ It was this time of year, and I got stuck. I thought ‘At least, I got December,’ then I thought ‘Oh, no. It’s Christmas. I’ll be busy with all the other stuff, and nothing will get done. I couldn’t be sequestered writing songs during Christmas. It occurred to me that I grew up in Houston, and there’s no Christmas song that represents Houston. There’s no snow, sleigh bells, or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. So, in an effort to break my writers’ block, I just started singing this song.”
At first, he hadn’t planned on anyone hearing it, but once they did….the rest was history. “I got such a kick out of it, but I didn’t play it for anyone for the longest time. I just thought it was funny for me, and not anyone else. For me, that’s the irony. People will come up to me and say ‘That’s just like my family.’ Apparently, in my weirdness, I hit an honest chord there.”
Hailed by publications such as Rolling Stone as one of music’s great storytellers, how does Keen approach his craft? “I heard John Updike say a long time ago that he preferred fiction because in fiction, there is always truth. You can color it all, and make it what you want, without ever being held accountable for it. Within that color, you can always project some beautiful truth that you believe in. Other people might see it as set pieces or some kind of action. That’s as opposed to when you write in a non-fiction manner, you really have to stick to the facts as much as possible. And, everything that is around which is not a fact becomes a lie. That becomes really confusing. I always love the fact there is the truth in fiction. Almost every song I’ve ever written has some real heartbeat of truth in it. We’d just have to sit down over a beer for me to tell you what it would be.
Where does he get his inspiration for his songs? He does a lot of people watching, he says. “I don’t work so much from titles, so I might see something that interests me. It could be a kid sucking on a lollipop, and that will stick with me. I can’t even describe what that is. That will be my inspiration for a song. I work very well with images. I’m not as good with dialogue as other people. It’s fun to play with, but what I work with is an image.”
With success on the Country, Texas, and Bluegrass charts, Keen has a lot of fans in a lot of musical sub-genres, but how does he describe himself? He deadpanned, “I used to joke that I toured so much that I called it ‘Best Western Music.’ I would fill that up with a large story – fifteen minutes of me talking, culminating in the punch line of ‘Best Western Music,’ and that’s a lot of fun, but in general, I would call it Americana music,” he states, turning serious. “I think I would adhere to the label there because that’s where all my friends are, and that’s the music that I listen to. I don’t know if as a writer or a critic, you would describe me that way, but that’s what I would say.
A legendary figure on the Texas Music scene, what is it about a crowd in the Lone Star state? “I believe that people here want to go out and enjoy themselves,” he says. “I don’t care if I went out and jumped on a Pogo stick. They’re not waiting on me. They’re just going to have a good time. From the moment they put their shirts on, they have decided they are just going to have a good time – like those old Lefty Frizzell songs about going out on the town. They’re already ready. I don’t have to do anything. There are many places you go, and people say ‘Show me what you got,’ and I like the challenge of that. But, really, you get a freebie with Texas crowds. They’re ready to go anyway.”