The 57-year-old Texan singer-songwriter began his music career while strumming a guitar alongside longtime friend Lyle Lovett. They played on the porch of Keen's rented house at 302 Church St. in College Station while attending Texas A&M University.
The Americana artist has never had a hit on mainstream Top 40 radio. But his bittersweet signature song "The Road Goes On Forever" is a classic for fans of alt-country, and his off-kilter holiday song "Merry Christmas From the Family" has become a favorite for everyone wanting to hear something different during December. The song is about Keen's redneck, chain-smoking relatives who get drunk on margaritas once the spiked eggnog is gone.
With plans to record a new album later this year, Keen is touring in support of 2011's "Ready for Confetti," which includes a dig at Toby Keith "In your clown suit and your goldilocks / All duded up in your cowboy crocs / Singing the same old song." The album also was notable as Keen stretched his arranging skills, offering skiffle blues to reggae, and gospel to the title track's island vibe, complete with steel drums.
"I thought there would be more outrage," Keen said about the reaction to his stab at a different style. "I guess I got away with it. The most disparaging thing anyone said is that I was sounding like Jimmy Buffett."
Keen enjoys the "creative part of the studio," but he knows he will always be back on the road a routine he has maintained since graduating from Texas A&M in 1980. It's helped him gain fans who don't mind his admittedly imperfect voice. This year, "I think I will tour, because that's what I've done for so long," he said.
Robert Earl KeenWhen • Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m.Where • The State Room, 638 S. State St., Salt Lake CityTickets • $40 at thestateroom.com