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After 41 Years On The Road, Robert Earl Keen Heads For Home

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Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen has noticed a change in energy at his shows this year, and he’s liking it. “Number one, these rooms were all sold out,” he says in Episode 213. “And then, I'd say five or six shows into it, I walked out on stage, and people were standing and clapping, and they stood there for five minutes, clapping, and just kept clapping! And I go okay, fine, fine, whatever. And they just kept clapping and I went uh, this is definitely different. And now it's just overwhelming.”

It’s the old lesson from economics - that something scarce becomes more valuable. And after September, Robert Earl Keen shows will be fewer and farther between. The iconic songwriter and alt-country showman told his fans in January that this year’s ongoing I’m Comin’ Home Tour will be his last. One of those sold-out shows will soon take place in Nashville, July 9, at the Ryman Auditorium.

Retirement, at least one that's announced in advance, is a rare move for artists of any age, barring a debilitating illness. Doyle Lawson made news recently when he bid adieu to touring. But he’s 78. Keen is 66 and very much in fighting shape. But he’s got other things he wants to do. He’s planning to write songs, get more focused on his interview show The Americana Podcast and pursue what he feels like. He’s not ruling out shows in the future, but he sounds pretty determined in our interview not to return to a tour bus.

“The tour life is rigorous. And we spend an easy average of 16 hours a day either traveling or setting up or doing sound checks, and then having some food and then going to do the show. And sometimes those are 20 hour days. And you know, you might catch a nap here or there in between. But it's one day after another. You don't know one day from the next, and you definitely are not enriching your life with new experiences.”

Keen dates the start of his relentless road career to his first trip out of Texas to play a show at the Old Town School of Folk Music at the invitation of Chicago bluegrass band Special Consensus. At the time he’d recently moved to Austin after graduating from Texas A&M University, where he was a face in the crowd of local folk and country songwriters. A win at the Kerrville New Folk contest in ‘83 paved the way for his debut album No Kinda Dancer. He spent a couple of years in Nashville, but that was no kinda fit, and he was back in Austin and out on the road for the release of his second LP West Textures.

Track #2 on that album was an unusual five-minute song with eight word-dense stanzas about a couple that gets tangled up with dirty Cuban money and the murder of a cop. When a San Antonio DJ started playing it, “The Road Goes On Forever” became Keen’s signature, an easy and open invitation to hundreds, then thousands, of fans who felt united and elated singing the answering hook: “And the party never ends!” From that point on, Keen balanced a literary touch with barroom good times like few others. He became an heir to the spirit of Jerry Jeff Walker, a focal point artist of the emergent Americana movement and a troubadour who released gem after witty gem over ultimately 21 albums.

But we don't talk about hardly any of that in Episode #212. We talk about the future, including Keen’s notion to carve out a role as an advisor/mentor to emerging artists and songwriters. “I've had an unorthodox career in that I have fought every fight. Won a few. Lost a lot. But I feel like within all of those things that I've learned in that experience, there are some real shortcuts,” he says. Obviously it’s a hard, rapidly-changing business where there are no sure paths to success. “What I could guarantee is that some things could be made a lot easier and more fun.”

Keen’s I’m Comin’ Home Tour wraps up with three nights at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, TX, a longtime favorite venue.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.