It seems like every time we turn around, we hear that Robert Earl Keen is playing in Augusta again. Turns out, there’s a very good reason for that.
Keen’s long-time guitarist, Richard Brotherton Jr, is from Augusta and, in fact, went to Aquinas High School.
“As a matter of fact, I think part of the reason we go to Augusta — not that I don’t think Augusta is a really nice place and I really enjoy it and stuff — but the inspiration behind going to Augusta is because Rich is from Augusta,” Keen said in a phone interview last week. “We cover the southeast quite a bit and we have for many, many years, for probably as long as 25 years, so we figured why don’t we go to Augusta? That’s where Rich’s family is from. So we found a place to play, the Imperial Theatre, which is a great place to play, and we make it an annual event, at least an annual event, and it’s been great for us because Rich has a great family and is a great person. He’s just an incredible talent. It’s hard to even describe the level of his talent. So it’s been very good for us to go there and kind of have a little family reunion.”
After Keen’s Augusta show this coming Wednesday, he and the band will have another family reunion of sorts when they play the 40th anniversary benefit concert for Austin City Limits on June 26. Keen has been somewhat of a regular guest on the show and has even performed at its annual musical festival.
“I believe it’s five times; it might be six,” he said. “I played on one where I was just a part of the invited list of guests, just like this show that we’re doing (on June 26) which is a celebration. It’s at least five, if not six. I’ve had a good, long relationship with the ACL.”
So long, in fact, that he has performed at both venues the show has used.
“It was forever in the communications building on the University of Texas campus and I would say, I wanna say, 4-5 years ago it moved to what they call the movie theater in downtown, in one of the big hotels,” Keen explained. “The hotel has nothing to do with it, it’s just the hotel is built around this performance space and it is truly world class. Truly, and I don’t want to sound cliché, but truly state of the art, world class performance venue.”
The UT performance space was noticeable smaller, he said, and necessitated the move.
“When it was at the University of Texas campus, it only held 400 people that would come to see Austin City Limits, because that’s how they started. It was a really small thing,” he said. “But over the years it’s become so popular that you couldn’t get tickets to any of the shows that they were taping for air on PBS. So they increased the size of the venue. Now, the venue holds about 2,200 and they do shows there all the time, not just the taped shows for PBS. I’ve played both of them and, the new one, it’s technologically advanced and architecturally very well designed. They can move in all the chairs so it feels real small when you do a show. They can adjust the seating however they want to in the new space, so that’s really good.”
There’s still one advantage the old space had over the new.
“Some beer company would always sponsor the show somehow and they would have these huge cafeteria tables full of draft beer,” he remembered. “And you would run in there and get a couple of beers and put them under your seat and then run and get another couple so you could be ready for the whole show. And everybody was really aware of this, there was sort of this community feel of, you know, let’s all just get our beer just right and then sit down and watch the show. So there was that and that is gone. I think they still have some beer sponsor stuff but not like that. That was sort of old-world politician kind of thing.”
The Texas native, who has been in the music business since he debuted with “No Kinda Dancer” in 1984, still prefers to spend his time touring. Keen has eschewed trying to make a name for himself overseas to focus on touring in the U.S. and Canada. Early in his career, he attempted to break into the Nashville scene, but only lasted 22 months before heading back to Texas.
These days, Keen says he doesn’t even recognize Nashville anymore.
“Wow, you know, I don’t have a handle on it. I went there two weeks ago and it was… you know everything has changed,” he said. “In the last five years particularly, Nashville has taken on this kind of glitz that I never saw coming and it’s kind of… uh… I’m intimidated by it. I don’t know what to think of it. It’s no longer any kind of good ole boy goes to town, gets his guitar out and becomes a star or, whatever, signs with some publishing company. It’s about the clothes you wear and they way you have your hair designed or chiseled and the girl that’s on your arm or, vice versa, the girl that’s got the cute guy. I don’t know what it is. It’s kind of like LA lite. I tell you what, it’s anything but country.”
Similarly, he doesn’t spend a lot of time hobnobbing with other bands on the festival circuit or even talking about their music.
“No, no, no, no,” he laughed. “You know, I’m not a musicologist. I’m a musician and a songwriter and, sometimes, I’m a little bit reluctant to talk about other people’s music because, in the first place, I don’t really have a grip on being a good critic. I’d be a lot better critic of a movie because I’d be a lot more objective. So, on the euphemistic side, I’d be very selective. On the other side, I’d be very narrow minded.”
Keen has earned the right to be just a little bit narrow-minded just by being the business for as long as he has. In fact, one of his most famous songs is coming up on a silver anniversary.
“The song that I’m most famous for is ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ and we put it on a record called ‘West Textures’ 25 years ago,” he said. “When we first put the record out, I don’t know, the people didn’t pay attention too much and it was kind of a slow go, mainly because I was always sort of an independent artist. Never was commercial.”
His and the song’s popularity picked up, however, basically through word of mouth. These days, Keen said it wouldn’t be one of his shows without including that standard.
“It’s just assumed that I’m going to play it, and I do play it most of the time,” he said.
And word of mouth is one of the reasons Keen said he keeps coming back to Augusta.
“We started coming there because Rich’s family is there and it’s a fun town to play, but we’ve found the audiences there are really warm and friendly and welcoming and we have a good time all the time.” he said. “However, we’ve been doing this for years and years and years and there are really very few bands that are out there that are doing this. So if you want to hear live music in a real way, that’s what we do.”
Robert Earl Keen
Wednesday, June 18