There’s a certain mythology that seems to rise up around the idea of the Texas singer/songwriter. There’s something that makes these figures, whether it’s bona fide legends like Willie Nelson, cult favorites like Butch Hancock, or somewhere-in-between figures like James McMurtry, seem larger-than-life. These are writers who attain godlike status because of how they turn a phrase or capture an image; where would the world be without Butch Hancock’s “West Texas Waltz” or Joe Ely’s “Me & Billy The Kid” or James McMurtry’s hard-bitten “We Can’t Make it Here” or, God help us all, Willie Nelson’s “Crazy?”
What’s perhaps more bewildering is how different all of these songwriters are. The whimsical wordplay of Hancock can rest comfortably next to McMurtry’s jaundiced-but-tenderhearted cynicism, which can stand proudly alongside Nelson’s universal appeal, and there isn’t really much intersection between any of them. How has one state produced so many amazing writers with so many different styles over the years?
Robert Earl Keen seems like a good guy to ask about that. He’s a Texas songwriter, after all, and even if he’s best known in the mainstream for his dysfunctional holiday portrait “Merry Christmas From The Family” or his bouncy shaggy-dog redneck anthem “The Road Goes On Forever,” a closer look at his album catalog reveals a writer every bit as incisive and skilled as any we’ve listed above. So we asked him.
Turns out it’s at least partially because Texas is, like, really, really big.
“Texas has many different landscapes with ever-changing topography,” Keen says. “From the coastal plains to the high plains in Lubbock and Amarillo from the Piney Woods in East Texas to the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas. And Texas is ever-evolving. So the songwriting should be the same, ever changing with different views and descriptions of life as it happens.”
But he does acknowledge that there’s a certain sensibility in the average Texas citizen; a certain hardscrabble determination.
“Texas is basically about hard work, being courageous and not being afraid to take a chance,” he says. “In my songwriting, I try to emulate those same characteristics.”
Keen is a great guy to talk to about this stuff not just because he’s a great songwriter, but because he’s great songwriter-adjacent. He’s been good friends with another idiosyncratic Lone Star gentleman named Lyle Lovett for a few decades now.
“Lyle and I actually met back in our college days at Texas A&M,” Keen says. “I had this house I rented, and my friends and I would always be goofing off, playing some song out on the porch, thinking we sounded amazing. Anybody could come and play and make comments on everybody who walked or rode by while we were pickin’ and grinnin’. And this kid would always ride by on his ten-speed. One day he stopped and asked if he could play a song with us. That was Lyle, and I was instantly impressed. We became fast friends, maybe because we were two of like eight students in the liberal arts school.”
It’s a friendship that’s endured through a couple of very different career paths. Keen has carved out a space as one of Americana’s most reliable writers and performers, mixing country, roots-rock, and folk music into something of his own and maintaining a rabid core audience while occasionally dipping his toe into the mainstream with tunes like that outlaw Christmas carol.
“I kind of wrote that song for me, to entertain myself and make myself laugh,” Keen says of the perennial holiday favorite. “And then I played it to friend and producer Garry Velletri, and he told me I had to put it on the record I was making (1994’s Gringo Honeymoon). And now that song has become a whole other thing.”
Meanwhile, Lovett has forged his own incredibly idiosyncratic sound, blending big-band jazz with honky-tonk twang and incorporating just about every style in between. It’s a varied catalog that can include the stark, heartbroken kiss-off “God Will” and a duet with Randy Newman on the Toy Story soundtrack (“You’ve Got A Friend In Me”). But when they stand onstage together trading songs, as Lovett and Keen are currently doing on a joint tour, they’re still just a couple of songwriting nerds from Texas A&M.
“We’ve been doing this sort of thing together for a while,” Keen says. “We take turns singing songs and talk in between. We chat a little about our friendship and what it was like growing up in the music industry. We don’t really plan out a set list; it’s like each story drives us to play the next song. But the favorites are always there.”