Keen plays the Rio this Thursday, Jan. 20.
There are two ways to make it in the music business: try your hand at filling stadiums and hope you don’t end up booking appearances on Celebrity Fit Club
to stay relevant; or clock some serious hours on the road and slowly build a long-term career. The second course requires patience and dedication, but it’s the surer bet. Robert Earl Keen is a textbook example of this last approach, having organically built an audience for his idiosyncratic mix of booze-soaked barroom rockers and literate country ballads. The approach hasn’t won him many fans in Nashville boardrooms, but in towns like Santa Cruz, fans welcome his live appearances like he’s a returning guitar-wielding warrior-king.
Though he hails from 2,000 miles away, there’s a sympatico relationship between Robert Earl Keen and Santa Cruz. When I spoke to him in 2007, he described Santa Cruz as “an undiscovered jewel” and mused, “if only all of touring and the music business was like it is in Santa Cruz.” Keen is so taken with our town that he penned a tounge-in-cheek ode in its honor titled “I’m Comin’ Home,” complete with shout-outs to local music icon “Sleepy” John Sandidge and late-night salmon barbecues. The affection is mutual: Keen has been on KPIG steady rotation since its inception and consistently fills the room during his frequent Santa Cruz appearances.
Like Santa Cruz and his longtime home of Austin, Keen is a cultural chimera, embodying a number of cultural and musical traits that exist in uneasy relationship with one another. Some skeptics, eyeing his oilman father and English degree from Texas A&M, have questioned Keen’s country credentials, but these details are more representative of the diverse, irascible and complex face of contemporary Texas than any predictable hillbilly stereotype. And it’s precisely this tension that makes Keen such a compelling figure: he’s concerned with the American South of Cormac McCarthy, not Tim McGraw. When I spoke with him, Keen noted that he “always carries around a Cormac McCarthy book…a lot of that stuff is melancholy, but it’s almost beautiful in its darkness.” This sensibility is evident in Keen’s songwriting: though he can kick out a party-hearty barnstormer with the best of them, the fingerprints of McCarthy, Jon Cheever and John Steinbeck are visible in Keen’s literate considerations of American lives on the edge. Far from prolific—he averages about two albums a decade, the most recent being 2009’s The Rose Hotel
—Keen makes albums marked by deliberate craftsmanship, the very work ethic that has earned him a loyal audience for all these years.
ROBERT EARL KEEN plays the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz at 7:30pm on Thursday, Jan. 20. Tickets $25 advance/$40 gold circle at 831.423.8209 or www.riotheatre.com.