He’s been a staple of the Texas country music scene for nearly three decades now, but the glitz and glamor of mainstream country never seemed to interest Robert Earl Keen much.
The son of a geologist for an oil company and an attorney, he grew up in the Sharpstown district of southwest Houston during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time and place that often experienced volatile race relations between residents as geographical boundaries shifted alongside legislative change and social progress. He used poetry to express himself and find understanding in the rapidly changing world around him, but it wasn’t until he went to college at Texas A&M that he discovered music.
He had originally planned to be a journalist, but he picked up a guitar and learned to sing instead. During his time playing the country bar circuit around College Station and Austin, he befriended another aspiring musician, a lanky and stoic songwriter with a similar country-folk sound named Lyle Lovett.
The pair wrote together on occasion in those early days, both helping the other to develop their debuts in the early 1980s. Keen and Lovett were considered progressive challengers to country music archetypes at the time. They were less likely to hoot and holler about tailgates and cold beer in oversized cowboy hats and belt buckles than they were to croon allegories in ties and vests. That’s not to say they couldn’t tell you about shootin’, whiskey and spittin’ tobacco into the honky tonk sawdust, too, as Keen in particular often will, but it wasn’t their only trick.
By the time Keen made it to Nashville in the mid-1980s, he was already a hit in Austin, where he had been praised for staying true to country roots while pushing the boundaries of where they could lead him.
Nashville agreed, and Keen, along with Lovett, k.d. lang, Kathy Mattea and others, found his popularity rising during a time when experimental country was increasingly more accepted in one of the hardest-won music cities worldwide.
The ultra-competitive city life among a sea of other musicians didn’t suit Keen for long, however, and within two years he was back in Texas.
The change of scenery and people recharged Keen’s songwriting, and his sophomore effort, “West Textures,” garnered critical acclaim nationwide and helped to widen his fan base in new markets.
Four albums, 12 years and thousands of gigs would pass before Keen would see his first album (“Gravitational Forces”) make it onto the country charts, making a big first impression by landing in the Top 10.
All five of his full-length releases have charted in the Top 30 since.
Commercial success may have come slowly, but Keen’s music has stayed relatively true to his beginnings, making only incremental perfections from album to album. Sometimes you just know when you have it right.
The times caught up to him eventually, and today he’s considered an important pioneer of the alt-country movement that emerged in the mid- to late ’90s with artists including Wilco, Spoon, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Adams.
Keen also has written popular songs for other artists such as George Strait and Nanci Griffith, accomplishments that aided in his 2012 induction to the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2015, he was the first recipient of music rights advocacy group BMI’s official Troubadour Award, which honors those determined to be “the songwriter’s songwriter.”
Keen will perform with special guest The Lowhills at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $35 in advance; $40 the day of the show. Tickets are available for purchase at the Charleston Music Hall box office, online at www.CharlestonMusicHall.com or by phone at 1-800-514-3849. Go to www.CharlestonMusicHall.com or call the Charleston Music Hall box office at 843-853-2252 for more information.