It Happened in Helotes: Robert Earl Keen Takes His Final Bow

They love to say that in Texas, the women are more beautiful, and the beer is colder. I’m not sure that can be scientifically proven. But there is something that is most certainly palpable—though in many ways indefinable—that does make the musical moments down in Texas feel significantly more meaningful for those who experience them.

It’s how you see your favorite artists in historic settings where so many other greats played before. It’s the way you’re able to follow their careers from beginning to the end; they never get so big where they feel untouchable, and you always feel intimately involved. And since songwriting is so central to the music of Texas, the stories stick to your bones. This isn’t just entertainment.

Sure, part of this is mythology. There are amazing performers and memorable moments to be had in music all over the world. But there’s no convincing a Texan of that, especially after they experience something like the very final live performance of one of their most favored songwriters and heroes.

Robert Earl Keen has been delivering memorable moments in Texas and beyond for 41 years. Those memories and his music will last for well beyond 41 more. But Robert Earl Keen took his final bow on Sunday, September 4th among the live oak trees and close fans and friends in Helotes, Texas at the 80-year-old Floore’s Country Store, just north and west of San Antonio. It marked the end of an era in Texas music, country music, and American music. And though Floore’s has hosted many historic moments over the years, it didn’t feel like “just another one.” It was Robert Earl Keen’s.

The first thing some may want to do is doubt Keen’s sincerity at calling it quits. Do we really expect him at age 66 to just ride off into the sunset? Sunday night’s performance was part of three final shows at Floore’s to cap off Keen’s incredible performing career. On Saturday Keen welcomed one his heroes to the stage, rodeo legend Phil Lyne, and told the story of Lyne’s retirement, and how he’d always wanted to emulate it.

“When he quit rodeo, he was at the top of his game,” Keen said. “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.”

Just like Saturday night at Floore’s, Sunday night started off with a speech, and a presentation. Texas musician and Director of the Texas Music Office, Brendon Anthony, was there to honor Robert Earl Keen, giving an excellent speech and presenting him with a proclamation from the State of Texas. And then Robert Earl Keen gave a speech himself, about his retirement, and how tough the final stretch of his final tour has been.

The Floore’s show Saturday night probably scored the best opening acts. Speaking of Texas songwriting legends, James McMurtry is right up there with the best of them, and though Eric Church doesn’t have any ties to Texas, it was cool to see someone of his magnitude come down to Texas to pay tribute (see full recap of Saturday).

Sunday started with David Beck’s Tejano Weekend, with Cody Canada and the Departed following. Canada said he felt blessed and honored to be a part of closing out an important chapter of music, and told the story of how he fell in love with his wife at a Robert Earl Keen show in Oklahoma City in 1998. Canada started off with the song “17,” and he looks like he hasn’t aged a day since starting Cross Canadian Ragweed. The Departed only played Canada songs written before 2007.

There was quite a pregnant pause before Robert Earl Keen took the stage. Technical difficulties meant his start was delayed until after 10:00 pm. They’d been playing American Aquarium music in between the sets, but right before Keen was supposed to take the stage, they appropriately piped in “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” by George Jones.

The long delay had some worried Robert’s final show might be truncated. But even if Floore’s was fined handsomely for breaking a sound curfew and the affluent neighbors flooded the town hall of Helotes with hate mail complaints, Robert Earl Keen was going to play every single song on his set list, tell every story needed telling before each song, and even took time for a solo acoustic set where he pulled out Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitar. It was an epic set that stretched all the way into Monday morning when at 12:32 p.m. Texas time, Robert Earl Keen took his final bow, and sauntered off stage for the last time.

Robert Earl Keen’s expressions say it all. He was elated and gratified as he stared out over the crowd showering him with adulation, reflective and a little sad as he began to turn away. And then as he began to walk off stage, he was incredibly relieved. Tired and bent from the toil of 41 years, but fulfilled.

These final shows at Floore’s were not just the last few in a succession of them on a farewell tour. Robert Earl Keen’s band was bolstered with extra players, most notably Texas music legend Lloyd Maines, known for his incredible steel guitar work, and producing some of the state’s most legendary country records. Though most of the time Maines just offered a bit of padding beneath the songs (Keen doesn’t really include a ton of steel guitar in his music), when it came Lloyd’s time to take a solo during “The Road Goes On Forever,” it made your hair stand on end.

Multi-instrumentalist Brian Beken is also an absolute beast on lead guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. Acoustic guitarist Noah Jeffries also stood out on some spectacular solos. And don’t worry, cameras and microphones were everywhere, and the set was being recorded in every which way for posterity, and likely, future release. Keen picked Floore’s Country Store for the significance, but also since he’d recorded live projects there before.

Similar to witnessing the Turnpike Troubadours reuniting in Tulsa at the historic Cain’s Ballroom earlier this year, words will always fail to describe the gravity of the moments experienced at an event like this. Everyone who attended one of Robert Earl Keen’s final shows felt this in some measure, and the patron’s at the first two Floore’s shows felt it especially.

But there is something about witnessing the final of anything that makes moments rise from memorable to historic. Tears were shed, and history was made. Just as some marvel at the Floore’s stage and all the greats who played on it in the past, so too will patrons and performers look at that stage, remember where Robert Earl Keen took his final bow, and be awed.

Because that’s music in Texas.

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All photos Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos

Final show set list
Cody Canada
Cody Canada’s son Dierks Canada (now 17)
Robert with bass player Bill Whitbeck
The legendary Lloyd Maines
Amazing multi-instrumentalist Brian Beken
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