Robert Earl Keen - Texas Songwriter & Performer
It's the little things that piss me off.
It's the note that you leave on the breakfast table
With a list of things to help me plan my day.
It's the way you say we could have -
If you'd done the things you should have.
It's the little things Darlin that make me feel this way.
It's the little things that piss me off.
- from "It's The Little Things (that piss me off)"
Robert Earl Keen was born January 11th, 1957 in the Sharpstown neighborhood of Houston. His parents were both country music fans and Keen listened to classic country growing up. Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams were among his earliest influences.
Around the age of six, he started writing poetry. When Keen was twelve years old he attended a Cream concert he said, "didn't do much for him". As he grew older his love of country deepened with exposure to the likes of Bob Wills and Jimmy Rodgers. Around the age of seventeen Keen took an interest in learning the fiddle, however, he found it a very difficult instrument to learn. In order to make it easier he decided to learn a few chords on the guitar that he could transpose to the fiddle (standard fiddle tuning is similar to guitar tuning.) Keen picked up a guitar for the first time, and he has never set it down again.
When he left home to attend Texas A&M, Robert bought a copy of "The Ten Biggest Country Music Hits" and learned to play nine of the ten songs. The only song he did not learn was Donna Fargo's "Happiest Girl In The Whole USA". While enrolled in A&M as a journalism major, Keen became disappointed with the local music scene. He felt like everything was starting to sound the same.
In 1977, he rented a house and became neighbors with then unknown Lyle Lovett. The pair became fast friends, playing evenings at each others houses and sitting on the front porch jamming. Eventually they wrote, "This Old Porch" which they would both record later.
In 1980 Keen graduated from A&M and began working for a newspaper in Austin as a journalist. While there he also formed a bluegrass band, the Front Porch Boys. He also worked as the Incredible Robert Keen and Some Other Guys Band. He financed an album on loans of $4,500, No Kinda Dancer, an album that was distributed regionally and became a sensation with fans and critics, which has twice been reissued. The Austin Chronicle nominated him Songwriter Of The Year. On Steve Earle's advice that there were too many distractions in Austin - namely pretty women and drugs - Keen moved to Nashville, although he returned to Texas in 1987. He soon became dismayed at the polished lifelessness of the "new country sound" and he was unable to land a contract to record his own music there.
He was a backing singer on Nanci Griffith's "St. Olav's Gate" and she recorded his songs "Sing One For Sister" and "I Would Change My Life". He appeared on the recording of the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival and then recorded a live album for Sugar Hill Records. In 1989, he made a spirited album about Texas life, West Textures. His rough-hewn voice suited the bittersweet songs, which included a country music parody worthy of David Allan Coe, "It's The Little Things (That Piss Me Off)". The stand-out track, ironically, was a song he did not write - Kevin Farrell's western tale of "Sonora's Death Row".
Although Keen is a frequent performer, he prefers to write at home: "I'm not a very good writer on the road because I only come up with lonely hotel songs." Gringo Honeymoon was another excellent album, full of narratives and the telling observation that "there are just two ways to go - dyin' fast or livin' slow". Number 2 Live Dinner was a raucous live album recorded here in Texas. His major label debut was a typically uncompromising collection comprised largely of Keen originals, and featuring Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies on the duet "Then Came Lo Mein". Keen moved to the newly minted Lost Highway label after his Arista Austin label folded. As the decade came to a close Keen continued to experiment and tour, booking nearly 200 dates every year. In recent years his annual concert series Texas Uprising has become extremely successful. Keen continues to release stellar albums.
Robert Earl Keen is mostly known as a great songwriter, although he is a natural performer. In this era of non-songwriting country musicians, Robert Earl Keen is one of the few who has the talent to write and record his own material.
His latest album, What I Really Mean, has received rave reviews. The album features appearances by special guests Ray Price (vocals), Danny Barnes (banjo) and is sprinkled with a few unique touches (including Gospel singers and Mariachi players).