If there was ever a best mix ‘n match in Americana music, it would have to be Austin City Limits and singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen. Both are legends in the music business. And when the long-running PBS television music show hosted the popular Texan troubadour for the last time, it was something they could share with a world-wide audience.
These days when Austin City Limits tapes a show it usually live streams the recording. But when they did so with the Keen show, on April 27, it was especially significant given this was probably the last chance for a wider audience to see the acclaimed live performer.
PBS was no doubt conscious of the enormous publicity generated from Keen’s shock announcement at the beginning of the year when he declared: “It is with a mysterious concoction of joy and sadness that I want to tell you that as of September 4, 2022, I will no longer tour or perform publicly.”
Given Keen’s enormous popularity as a live artist – he is loved by fans and fellow-musicians alike – this decision was bolt out of the blue.
But 66-year-old Keen - never short of a good line - put it all into perspective when he later told Rolling Stone: "I have friends ... who died in horrible hotel rooms in nowhere, Georgia. I'm not doing that."
Keen released his debut album No Kinda Dancer in 1984 and since then has put out around 20 albums, including a half a dozen live releases. He has written a host of memorable songs – some of them gob-smacking funny – and many have been recorded by the likes of George Strait, Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch, The Highwaymen and his long-time friend and Texas A&M classmate Lyle Lovett.
But it is as a mesmerizing live performer over four decades which would turn him into a legend. He would make up to 180 live appearances a year, delighting singalong-fans worldwide in clubs, pubs, roadhouses, theatres, festivals and … television studios.
His final gig on Austin City Limits was his fifth headlining appearance on the longest running music series in American television history – he has made other guest spots. He certainly dressed for the occasion, looking resplendent in tie and waistcoat, adorned by a sparkling jacket – all beneath his trademark fedora.
Keen was accompanied by a five-piece band including his musical partners of two decades or more – bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik . Added to the line-up were Brian Beken (fiddle/guitar), Noah Jeffries (guitar) and Lubbock legend Lloyd Mains on pedal steel. It was Mains’ 32nd appearance on Austin City Limits. “You’d think they’d give him a car space,” quipped Keen about his long-time friend.
The first time Keen actually appeared on ACL was in 1989, though he amused the packed audience by recounting his first visit to the show - to see Nanci Griffith in 1983 - during which he met his wife Kathleen.
The ACL appearance comes in the middle of a hectic final tour across the U.S. he has dubbed: I’m Comin’ Home: 41 Years On The Road.
Keen’s setlist during his final tour has included a smattering of covers - whether it be a Billy Joe Shaver or John Prine song - but, no doubt aware of his global audience, he stuck to his knitting in Austin with his own, or co-written, compositions.
He opened, as in many of his live albums, with back-to-back nineties classics “Feeling Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon.” A technical glitch – remember this is “as-live” television – meant he soon had to retake “Gringo Honeymoon” – much to the delight of the audience who saw it as another singalong.
Spontaneous singalongs have always been a hallmark of Robert Earl Keen shows and this one was no different, especially with his signature song “The Road Goes On Forever” (and the party never ends) – in which Beken on fiddle and Mains on steel guitar really let loose.
Another must-have at a Keen concert is between-song stories. His popular tribute to The Band legend Levon Helm “The Man Behind the Drums,” which he co-wrote with Whitbeck, was prefaced by him detailing when Helm hosted the Keen entourage at his studio/home in upstate New York.
Keen’s portrait of a Mexican co-worker “Mariano” during his early days when he struggled to find work between gigs prompted him to tell of when fellow-Texan Steve Earle persuaded him to try his luck in Nashville. “Steve said go to Nashville and suffer .. so I went there and suffered.” It was around this time, he told the engaged crowd, that he ended up digging ditches. “One day as I was doing this I remembered by father telling me if you keep up with this music thing, you’ll end up digging ditches … and here I was in a ditch.”
When he got to talking about the time he wrote the song about a horse he once owned – “Black Baldy Stallion” off 2011’s album Ready for Confetti – he was by then a Texas music legend. He recounted how he first played it to another Texan troubadour, the late Guy Clark, and how Clark had then dragged on his cigarette, slowly blew out smoke and proclaimed: “Too many fuckin’ words.” Keen quipped: “I cried all the way home.”
The only time he mentioned retirement was to reference his seated performance. “I’ve got to warm up for retirement,” he joked. “I’ve got a golf game, I just need to get a chair game.”
The 90-minute set – the televised ACL show is usually scheduled for 60 – ended appropriately with “I Gotta Go” (wasting time standing here/I gotta go). The band had hardly serenaded Keen offstage when he returned declaring: “Someone backstage told me he missed out Christmas shows and he gave me five bucks. So what am I gonna do?”
This was the cue for his most popular singalong “Merry Christmas From the Family, ” a true show-stopper for which all his fans know every politically-incorrect lyric - A bag of lemons and some Diet Sprites/A box of tampons and some Salem lights/Hallelujah, everybody say “Cheese”/Merry Christmas from the family. The crowd chant Feliz Navidad probably still resounds around The Moody Theatre.
When Rolling Stone asked Keen if he had thought about the last song he will ever play live, he was caught off guard: “No, actually I haven’t. My mind just exploded. Really, I have to think about that? Maybe I should.”
The answer will be known on September 4 at Floore’s Country Store, the famous dancehall in Helotes, Texas - the venue being no surprise given it is where recorded his much-acclaimed live album No. 2 Live Dinner in 1996 and the equally-impressive Live Dinner Reunion 20 years later.
Keen’s appearance on Austin City Limits will air on PBS stations cross America when Season 48 of the famous music show is scheduled later in the year.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation