In concert, when Robert Earl Keen sings that line about AA, the crowd always chants along and cheers. Sometimes, people pour beer on each other’s heads.
“Hallelujah,” proclaims the good-time chorus to “Merry Christmas From the Family,” Keen’s quintessential dysfunctional-kin-’round-the-Christmas-tree carol. “Everybody say ‘Cheese.'”
Take a snapshot of your average Keen show — if there is such a thing — and you’re likely to wind up with a hazy image of a sweaty, boozy party crammed with college-age revelers. In the Texas troubadour’s home state, the throng of faithful can burgeon into a fairly giant mass.
And a pretty weird one as well, as Keen noted by phone from a Stephenville, Texas hotel room, just before loading out for a show in Lubbock, his mild voice pretty beat up from hectic touring.
Consider what happened the last time he played the old dance hall in Luckenbach, out in the Texas hill country. Though Keen outgrew the venue about five years ago, he’s friends with its owner — and, he notes lightly, Luckenbach is close to his own home in Bandera. (That’s near in Texas terms: The two towns are roughly 50 miles apart.)
“We were playin’ there about a year ago,” Keen recalls, “and these kids started crawlin’ up in the rafters. It was kinda fun at first, but then I started thinkin’ it was kinda scary, ’cause if one of those rafters collapsed, it’s possible that a big piece of the building could have collapsed, too. So I’m playin’ and playin’, and all of a sudden I look over, and Rich Brotherton, the guitar player, is jammin’ on this big, long solo, and a kid falls out of the rafters and misses him by about six inches, and lands right on the stage. I see this body just — boom! — hit the ground.”
Keen chuckles. “I went, ‘Wow, this is a little over the top!’
“It’s a very odd feeling, finding myself the dysfunctional hero of all these people,” he adds.
However peculiarly, Keen’s career is at long last catching up to his talent. After years with Durham, N.C.-based Sugar Hill Records, he’s signed with a major label, becoming the flagship artist on Arista’s new Austin imprint. Not only is his touring reaping big rewards, Keen’s exceptional Arista debut, Picnic (1997), is his biggest seller yet.
“I’m goin’, ‘Damn, are there as many oddballs out there as I am?'” he says.
But Keen’s fabulous, first-person tales — of warped Yuletide gatherings (“Brother Ken … brought his new wife Kaye,” goes that earlier lyric, “who talks all about AA”); of boozy gringo honeymoons just south of the border, and even boozier road trips in flight from juvenile criminal escapades — have done some peculiar things to his reputation.
“These days, there’s a certain amount of credibility that goes along with [writing] about being this kind of person,” he explains. Before long, adds Keen, people are saying, “‘Well of course you’ve gotta go get completely shit-faced and fall out of your car after a show.'”
And fans often try to help, offering post-concert beers, shots and what-have-you.
“Y’know, I’m sorry,” says Keen, “I actually go back to the hotel room and sleep. I’m gonna do something normal.”
Not everyone appreciates that.
“I’ve burned all my credibility,” he declares, laughing. “People go, ‘You’re talkin’ ’bout all this crazy stuff. Why can’t you be as crazy as us?'” The fact that he chooses not to be is strange for some fans. “Some [of them] get almost hot about it.”
Keen may have soberly stumbled upon a winning songwriting recipe, but he also identifies strongly with his most disenfranchised, prone-to-excess characters.
“I write songs from that perspective, because it’s so much my own perspective,” he notes. “I never was the kid who was picked first for the football team, or any of that sort of stuff. As I [read] in a short story by Dave Hickey: I’m always a little below and a little outside. That’s where I come from.”
But Keen is that Rocky Balboa kind of underdog: He puts himself through the toughest ropes, and ends up winning.
Even after six strong Sugar Hill albums, he still felt like he had to prove himself worthy when he landed that long-awaited major-label deal. From Picnic’s cover shot — a picture of Keen’s own car engulfed in flames at Willie Nelson’s 1974 Fourth of July bash — to bittersweet original material like “Then Came Lo Mein” and several well-chosen covers, the album seems weightier than previous efforts.
“I felt like I was cornered a bit, like a wild animal,” Keen confesses. “And I kinda lashed out, I really did. I felt like, OK, people are gonna say, ‘What the f••k is he gonna do? How come he deserves it? Is he serious enough?’
“I wanted it to be very clear: Yes, I’m very f••king serious.”