Robert Earl Keen (born January 11, 1956) is an American singer-songwriter and entertainer. Debuting with 1984's No Kinda Dancer, the Houston native has recorded 18 full-length albums for both independent and major record labels. His songs have had cover versions recorded by several country, folk and Texas country music musicians, including George Strait, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, The Highwaymen, Nanci Griffith, and the Dixie Chicks.
Although both his albums and live performances span many different styles, from folk, country, and bluegrass to rock, he is most commonly affiliated with the Americana genre. Keen has toured extensively both in the US and abroad throughout his career, and was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 along with Lyle Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt.
Keen grew up in southwest Houston. His father was a geologist and his mother an attorney. He has an older brother and a younger sister. He attended Sharpstown High School, graduating in 1974. As a teenager, Keen was an avid reader who excelled in writing and literature classes, and a fan of both the English rock band Cream and, influenced by his older brother, country music by artists like Willie Nelson.
His younger sister, Kathy, introduced him to the Houston music scene in the early seventies. "My sister was a couple years younger than I was, and she was like the world-champion Foosball player of downtown Houston", Keen said in a 2011 cover story for LoneStarMusic Magazine. Keen would accompany his sister to the bars where she played, many of which featured singer-songwriters playing both covers and original tunes. He started playing guitar himself shortly thereafter, teaching himself to play classic country covers out of a song book the summer before starting college at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1978 and began writing songs and playing bluegrass and folk music with friends including his childhood friend (and future longtime fiddle player in his band), Bryan Duckworth. During his college years Keen met future musician Lyle Lovett.
In 1980, Keen graduated from Texas A&M and moved to Austin, Texas. He performed in Austin's nightclubs and live music venues like the Cactus Cafe and Gruene Hall in nearby New Braunfels. In 1983, Keen won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas.
That same year, he began making his self-produced first album, No Kinda Dancer, with the help of his bandmates and the young musicians Lovett and Nanci Griffith. He leased the album to Rounder Records, which released on its Philo Records imprint in 1984. Keen began touring outside of Texas and moved with his wife, Kathleen, to Nashville, Tennessee in 1986 -- at the encouragement of musician Steve Earle.
Keen returned to Texas 22 months later after failing to find mainstream success, though in Nashville he had signed a publishing deal, a new independent label deal and a national booking agent (Keith Case). After the release of his second and third albums, 1988's The Live Album and 1989's West Textures (both produced by Jim Rooney and released on Sugar Hill Records) he began to have commercial success both in Texas and in the rest of the country. Keen's tour dates around that time included a triple-bill run with Texas songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
West Textures featured the first recording of what would soon become Keen's signature song, "The Road Goes on Forever." Fellow Texan Joe Ely recorded the song on his 1993 album Love and Danger, along with another Keen song, "Whenever Kindness Fails." Keen's own version of "Whenever Kindness Fails" appeared on his fourth album, 1993's Garry Velletri-produced A Bigger Piece Of Sky, along with the following year's Gringo Honeymoon (whose title track and light-hearted "Merry Christmas from the Family" he frequently plays live, along with 1996's No. 2 Live Dinner.
Keen has continued to write, record, and tour in the United States. His 1997 album, Picnic, marked the beginning of his on-again, off-again relationship with major labels (both that album and 1998's Walking Distance were issued on Arista Records, and 2001's Gravitational Forces, 2009's The Rose Hotel and 2011's Ready for Confetti were released on Lost Highway Records.) Keen's other albums include 2003's Farm Fresh Onions (Audium/Koch Records) and 2005's What I Really Mean and 2006's Live at the Ryman (both on E1 Music). The producers with whom he's worked on those albums have included John Keane, Gurf Morlix, Lloyd Maines, and his longtime lead guitarist, Rich Brotherton.
|Title||Album details||Peak chart positions|
|No Kinda Dancer||--||--||--||--||--||--|
|A Bigger Piece of Sky||
|Farm Fresh Onions||
|What I Really Mean||21||122||1||5||--||--|
|The Rose Hotel||
|Ready for Confetti||
The Bluegrass Sessions
|"--" denotes releases that did not chart|
|Title||Album details||Peak positions|
|The Live Album||
|No. 2 Live Dinner||
|The Party Never Ends||
|Live from Austin TX||
|Live at the Ryman||
|Marfa After Dark||
|Live Dinner Reunion||
|"--" denotes releases that did not chart|
|1984||"No Kinda Dancer"||No Kinda Dancer|
|"The Armadillo Jackal"|
|1997||"Over the Waterfall"||Picnic|
|1998||"Down That Dusty Trail"||Walking Distance|
|1999||"That Buckin' Song"|
|2001||"Hello New Orleans"||Gravitational Forces|
|"Not A Drop of Rain"|
|2002||"High Plains Jamboree"|
|2003||"Furnace"||Farm Fresh Onions|
|"All I Have Is Today"|
|2005||"What I Really Mean"||What I Really Mean|
|"The Great Hank"|
|2009||"The Rose Hotel"||The Rose Hotel|
|2010||"The Man Behind the Drums"|
|2011||"I Gotta Go"||Ready for Confetti|