Eric Church, Phil Lyne Toast Robert Earl Keen at Penultimate Show

Photo: Brad Coolidge

It is a bittersweet time this Labor Day weekend down in Texas, and specifically at the legendary Floore’s Country Store in Helotes where Robert Earl Keen is wrapping up 41 years of touring with three final shows. The first was on Thursday (9-1), before REK trekked off to his adopted home town of College Station to help open the new Aggie Park on Friday, September 2nd. Then Saturday night (9-3), Keen was back in Helotes for his penultimate show.

Though Saturday wasn’t the final farewell, the night was full of memorable moments that will most certainly make the biography. First, the opener was not some local up-and-comer. It was no less than Eric Church, who had traveled to Texas to pay tribute to Keen, and play some make up shows in New Braunfels the days before due to his addiction to Tar Heels basketball.

Think what you want about Eric Church, he has always been one to honor past greats, and pay attention to some of the most important artists of our time, including the heavy hitters down in Texas. In 2018, Eric Church surprised everyone by showing up to the Texas Heritage Songwriters induction of Ray Wylie Hubbard. Church later featured Ray Wylie Hubbard on a song they co-wrote together called “Desperate Man.”

Church played an acoustic set to open the Robert Earl Keen show that included songs like “Springsteen” and “Creepin'”. Later, Church came out and sang a portion of “Corpus Christi Bay” with Keen.

“Robert Earl Keen Jr. has been a huge influence on my music and writing,” Church said previously. “We used to cover ‘Corpus Christi Bay’ in my bar band in North Carolina in college. When he asked me to join him on the last shows of his career, I told him I’d do whatever he wanted.”

Another legendary Texas songwriter in James McMurtry also opened the show after a short rain delay. But as good of an appetizer as all that was, the crowd was there for Robert Earl Keen himself, who told lots of stories between songs, and was very lively throughout the set, despite sitting on a chair to perform these days. He played many of his cherished songs, from “Think It Over,” to “Merry Christmas From The Family,” to of course “The Road Goes On Forever,” which some had grumbled over since he failed to play it the first night at Floore’s. Keen finished up the evening with “I’m Coming Home.”

It wasn’t just the songs and performances that people will remember from Keen’s next-to-last show though. Reading from prepared notes, Robert Earl Keen revealed one of the true reasons why he’s decided to cease touring, while simultaneously speaking about how rough the last few months have been, and introducing a hero of his. Though in his original announcement of his final tour Keen said health was not an issue, he explained to the Floore’s Country Store crowd that he’s been suffering from numerous ailments.

My poor health became undeniably visible, which created tremendous doubt for all of us, and most of all, our beloved fans. That same month, our bus driver’s mother died unexpectedly, and by June 1st, moral was at an all time career low. The outset of these stressful situations touched everyone on the tour, and as anxiety rose, communication weakened. I developed Bell’s Palsy, and our fiddle player Brian—who is very healthy—suffered a pinched nerve. Our drummer Tom broke his elbow. When we thought everything was already going up in flames, our bus caught fire. But by God, we made it here tonight.

In playing over 175 shows in the past three months, we’ve also seen good times, we’ve welcomed our new guitar player Noah, and traveled across the nation from arenas, to theaters, to my favorite local hangouts like tonight, Floore’s Country Store. It couldn’t be fulfilling without such great audiences such as yourself. That can bring us all together.

Amidst the trials and tribulations, people doubted my retirement. Like Elton John, I’d come back. Like Tom Brady … we still haven’t seen the last of him. I had no convincing answers, so I either shrugged or mumbled something like, ‘You don’t know me.’ I felt like a liar. It reminded me of a girl who used to say with all sincerity, ‘Well, I live facetiously through other people.’ There was one thought that kept dragging me through this rigorous ordeal, and that thought was on my brain in 1974.

My senior year in high school, I’d grown up in Houston with dreams of being a cowboy. I read ‘Western Horseman.’ I listened to country music exclusively. I dipped snuff ’till my teeth fell out. I went to every rodeo within 100 miles of my hometown metropolis. I was obsessed with rodeo. I built a buckin’ barrel in my backyard. And as I’ve said before, I had a rodeo career that lasted 15 seconds. For you math majors, that’s five bulls times three seconds a piece.

And most importantly I became a lifetime fan of a man that I consider to this day the greatest sports hero ever. Not only was he the best of all at rodeo, he was perfect, so much so that he rarely talked about his accomplishments, and this is what landed on my brain. When he quit rodeo, he was at the top of his game. And then like Bobby Fischer—the world’s best chess player—he disappeared. And unlike Bobby Fischer, he never returned to challenge another, or challenge himself. I thought that was the coolest, dignified exit from anything a person could accomplish. I though that if I ever have a moment of clarity, like my rodeo hero, I promised myself, I would follow his lead.

Then with a shaking voice full of emotion, Robert Earl Keen said, “At this time, I’d like to introduce you to my hero, and thank him for showing me the way. True to his nature, he is here tonight to stand by my side, so you wonderful people can see this amazing man, and know that heroes are real, and that they inspire people without knowing when, where why, or how. Their heroic actions change lives. My hero has always been a cowboy. Ladies and gentlemen, people help me welcome … helping to celebrate 80 years of music at Floore’s Country Store, please put your hands together for the one and only Phil Lyne.”

Born in San Antonio, Phil Lyne was the RCA Rookie of the Year in 1969. In 1971, he won the all-around cowboy world championship and the tie-down roping world championship. At the NFR in 1972, won the all-around world champion cowboy award again, and a second tie-down roping world championship. Phil Lyne was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.

Who knows what surprises, special guests, and speeches may be given Sunday night, September 4th, when Robert Earl Keen plays his very final show. But Saving Country Music will be there to report on it.

READ: It Happen in Helotes: Robert Earl Keen Takes Final Bow

Below photos by Brad Coolidge.

Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen with Phil Lyne
James McMurtry
Eric Church
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