It may be a “say it ain’t so” moment for Austin City Limits fans, but it’s true: Robert Earl Keen’s seventh time on our storied stage will apparently be his last. We first welcomed him in Season 14, thirty-four years ago, and have been diehard fans ever since. While the Houston native won’t be retiring from live performances until September, he still threw himself and his legions of fans a hell of a goodbye party with an epic set traversing his entire career.
As the sparkly-jacketed Keen took a seat centerstage, he noted that ACL has been a big part of his career arc, in part due to meeting his wife at a Nanci Griffith taping back in 1983. Then, backed by his five-piece band – stalwart rhythm section Bill Whitbeck (with Keen for 27 years) and Tom Van Schaik (25), guitarists Brian Beken and Noah Jeffries, and his longtime friend and ACL Hall of Famer Lloyd Maines on the pedal steel – Keen opened with a one-two punch of classic tunes: “Feeling Good Again,” from 1998’s Walking Distance, and “Gringo Honeymoon,” from the 1994 album of the same name. Keen then introduced the band, before going into the warm folk rocker “For Love I Did It,” from 2005’s What I Really Mean. Due to a technical snafu, we had to run “Gringo Honeymoon” again – the amiable Keen offered the audience the option to redo it right then, or “cram us all in your mini-van and do it then.” The redo got even bigger applause than the first take, especially when the audience got to sing “We ain’t never comin’ back!” themselves. “We might just double down on the whole set,” Keen grinned.
The songwriter noted that the next song was the unofficial theme song for his popular Americana Podcast—the appropriately melody-rich “Let the Music Play.” After paying tribute to a genre, Keen honed in on a specific musician, telling the story of visiting the late Levon Helm’s combination venue/studio/residence the Ramble in upstate NY, which inspired his fan favorite “The Man Behind the Drums.” He then switched from stories of great musicians to tales of the criminal element with “Shades of Gray,” a hidden gem from 1997’s major label bow Picnic. Contrary to its title, “Dreadful Selfish Crime” didn’t continue the theme, but instead addressed the sin of wasting one’s life – despite its sobering message, the crowd responded to it with wild applause. Keen then revisited one of his certified classics, giving “Corpus Christi Bay” a rocked-up arrangement, garnering another round of hurrahs.
Keen talked about his early days as a songwriter, first moving to Austin in 1980, then trying his luck in Nashville at the urging of friend Steve Earle, before returning and settling in Bandera, Texas. There he met a co-worker named Mariano, who lent his name to the eponymous minor-key song found on Keen’s second LP, 1989’s West Textures, and given an earnest reading here. Speaking of earnestness, he followed that up with “I’ll Be There For You,” from the 1998 LP Walking Distance, and as heartfelt a ballad as he’s likely ever written. He then leapt forward thirteen years to 2011’s Ready For Confetti, his most recent studio album of original material, for “Black Baldy Stallion,” a tribute of sorts to a horse he once owned, telling a story about playing that song for the late Guy Clark, whose only response was to roll a cigarette, blow a plume of smoke and note, “Too many fuckin’ words.” “I cried all the way home,” Keen said, only half joking.
He led the band and crowd into the home stretch with “Sinnerman,” a tune he hasn’t yet recorded himself, but was recorded by the Stryker Brothers. After that he lightly strummed some chords before singing “Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town,” to which the audience responded with a cheer. It was, of course, “The Road Goes On Forever,” Keen’s signature anthem from early-career breakout West Textures, and one on which the crowd sang along, sometimes louder than its writer. Needless to say, band and audience went wild, taking a minute to settle down enough for the next song. Keen reiterated his retirement, adding that he was sitting in the chair “to practice a little bit,” logically preceding Gringo Honeymoon’s “I’m Comin’ Home,” a sentiment that evolved into a full audience singalong. Fittingly, Keen ended the show with the jaunty “I Gotta Go,” because, well, he did. “You can take this one with ya,” he told the fans. They did as he stood up center stage, raised his guitar, and poignantly took a bow, letting the band play him offstage.
But it wasn’t quite over, as Keen almost immediately came back. “Somebody backstage told me he’d missed one of our Christmas shows,” he explained, “and he gave me five bucks, so what am I gonna do?” That, obviously, meant “Merry Christmas From the Family,” his Christmas classic eight months early. It became another singalong, of course, as well it should have. It was a truly special performance from an ACL favorite, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48.