The Road Ends: Robert Earl Keen Announces Retirement from Touring
Robert Earl Keen is much more than just a songwriter from Texas. In Texas and beyond, he’s an institution. While the foundations were being laid for the emergence of Red Dirt in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Robert Earl Keen was creating a template for how Texas artists could be supported that was decidedly separate from Nashville. It was “Texas music,” where an artist could work a complete touring circuit, and enjoy local and regional radio play without enduring the rigors of the Music Row system.
But of course, without the songs of Robert Earl Keen, none of that would be possible. The consummate storyteller, it was the song “The Road Goes on Forever” for his 1989 album West Textures that put him on the map for many. A little over a decade later, “Feeling Good Again” gave him another signature song, while in between he put together a career that can only be called legendary, and challenged his fellow songwriters. Robert Earl Keen is the reason that if you want to play in Texas, you don’t always need a fiddle, but you do need to know how to write a song.
But now the road has ended for Robert Earl Keen, at least when it comes to touring.
In a video released on Friday, January 14th (see below), Keen address his fans saying, “It is with a mysterious concoction of joy and sadness that I want to tell you as of September 4th, 2022, I will no longer tour or perform publicly. I plan to continue to write songs, interview a wide variety of celebrities and contributors for our Americana podcast. I also embrace this as an opportunity to further support the music community, and the ever-expanding body of young talent on our horizon.”
Making sure to underscore, “I’m not sick, or experiencing some existential crisis,” he assures, “I feel that making a decision, and quitting the road while I still love it is the way I want to leave it.”
Just as much rock and folk as country, his music is distinctly Robert Earl Keen, uncommitted to genre, but deeply committed to the song, however it comes out. Born in Houston and keen on literature, he grew up influenced by Cream and Willie Nelson all the same. Attending Texas A&M University where he would bunk for a while with Lyle Lovett, this is where the music bug would bite him, and many hours were spent playing folk and bluegrass around the house and out about town.
His move to Austin in 1978 is where the career got its start in places like the Cactus Cafe, and Gruene Hall down in New Braunfels. In 1983, he won the prestigious New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival, and the next year released his debut album No Kinda Dancer.
But keen observers of Robert Earl will tell you that over the last few years, perhaps a sense of boredom had overtaken him, maybe a “done it all” syndrome of sorts. He hadn’t released a proper original studio album in some 11 years. His 2015 album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions did what it could to keep things fun for Keen, similar to his side project with Randy Rogers in incognito mode called The Stryker Brothers from 2018.
During the pandemic, Robert Earl Keen took out a 2nd mortgage so he could continue to pay his band. He’s also talked about an upcoming album that still may be on the horizon called Western Chill.
“There is no way to inventory the fantastic amount of incredible people that have have touched my life,” Keen says. “My family, friends, band members, fans, co-workers, teachers, advisors, confidants, and peers only begin to tell the story. I feel connected to every one of them. If I could picture them in a blink of an eye, like snapping a photograph, I’m connected, and I do believe it’s the people that come in and out of your life that make life worth living.”
Robert Earl Keen says he will play shows up to September 4th, 2022, and his final tour will be capped off by a succession of shows at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, TX. More details when they are available.
January 14, 2022 @ 2:20 pm
Man, Robert Earl Keen has written some of my favorite country songs of my lifetime. His brand of storytelling is perfect IMHO. I still listen to stuff he put out decades ago and find new things to like about it. Guess he’s earned his retirement but I hope to hear some more songs in the future if he’s got em in him.
January 14, 2022 @ 8:12 pm
I love me some REK….and since seeing Chucky Waggs open for Todd Snider in Eureka Springs….
Let me just say this…. There’s hope for the future!
January 14, 2022 @ 8:36 pm
Oh, Thank you man! I really appreciate it. I’m glad you enjoyed it. That was a fun night!
January 23, 2022 @ 11:00 am
Sorry we weren’t able to catch y’all at the Four Quarter in NLR but our family and folks on our road were all pretty “positive-ly” unable to attend anything. But I wore my Chucky Waggs shirt that night in quarentine.
February 8, 2022 @ 8:29 am
God Speed Robert….C.U.
January 14, 2022 @ 2:22 pm
Glad I saw him a few years ago. Road Goes on Forever was an introduction to me that country music actually doesn’t suck.
January 14, 2022 @ 2:37 pm
So glad I saw him three times, the craziest was his album release show for Gravitational Forced in Santa Cruz on 9/11/2001. Holy shit that was weird, but he said they had already scheduled it so the only thing he could do was play the set and sort of show his love through the music. The last time he played Live Oak Festival in Santa Barbara right before Richard Thompson absolutely killed it, I was sitting at the base of the lighting stand right next to Rich Brotherton, both of us totally in awe of Thompsons total mastery. So glad I got to infiltrate the scene at KPIG in Santa Cruz, they really boosted his career outside of Texas and he played a lot of their festivals.
January 14, 2022 @ 2:40 pm
Back in the ’90s, the mainstream current country radio stars generally did not appear in NYC, but the top legends–Haggard; Waylon, Willie, Cash and Kris (as the Highwaymen, but also each o them, individually); Dolly; and many of the non mainstream (now known as Americana) artists used to regularly play. I saw all of the above artists play in small venues in Manhattan–most more than once–plus, Robert Earl Keen, Shaver, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Dale Watson and Chris Knight–and Wayne Hancock in Brooklyn.
REK played a venue called Irving Plaza on a short street south of of Gramercy Park, named for Washington Irving. He actually sold the place out and when I got in it seemed like more than half the crowd was from Texas. I didn’t know there were that many Texans in New York, but I guess there are a lot. But they weren’t cowboy types. There were a lot of what looked like recent college grads in their 20s or 30s who were working for New York banks and were there to get loud and get a bit drunk.
But everybody knew and loved REK
January 15, 2022 @ 3:42 pm
REK used to be on regular rotation of Fordham University’s WFUV as was Willie, Lyle Lovett, etc. So his music had some presence on the radio in the city.
The older guys also played LI. Willie came to Westbury every year. Johnny Cash played Oyster Bay at the end of the summer each year in the early 90s. I was supposed to see Waylon (my only chance), but he was sick that night. So the opening act played for 2+ hours. The opening act was Marty Stuart.
The mainstream artists primarily played Westbury Music Fair or Jones Beach out on the Island. I saw Randy Travis, Clint Black, Mark Chesnutt, Vince Gil, Ricky Van Shelton, etc
NYC is generally hostile territory for country music, but there are definitely some hard core fans.
January 15, 2022 @ 4:20 pm
It’s expensive to mount a large show in NYC and the city did not get into ’90s hat-act superstar country enough to book stadiums or venues like MSG.
Oddly, I actually saw Toby Keith in Manhattan–and at the World Trade Center, of all places, in the summer of 1993. The local country radio station–I believe it was called WYNY–used to promote outdoor mid-day summer concerts, mostly featuring young acts who were not on the radio and maybe didn’t even have record deals. But one week the concert that they were promoting was with Toby Keith, who had just hit with his debut single, “Should Have Been A Cowboy,” and was on his second radio single. The radio station ran promotional ads saying that Keith would be performing outside in the WTC plaza, between the two towers on a certain weekday at around 1 pm.
I was working in Midtown then, and took the subway down to the Trade Center at lunch time and Toby was there in the Plaza standing in an open-sided trailer from a big rig, with a small band, and a bunch of amps and did all or most of the songs from his debut album, including “Cowboy,” “He Ain’t Worth Missing,” Wish I Didn’t Know Now,” et al. He got there in the middle, but he went throuhgh his repertoire twice.
It was hard to tell how many people even came to hear him. It was a bright June or July Day, there were plenty of people in the plaza, some siting down and eating take-out lunches, but they didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the guys performing in the trailer.
I’ve never heard Toby mention this day, in any interviews or articles related to “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue,”–from the war in the wake of the World Trade Center attack–or anything else. I know that touring artists do so many performances that they probably forget a lot of them, but coming into lower Manhattan and performing outside in the plaza between the mammoth WTC towers when he was just making a name for himself would probably be something that Toby remembers.
I like Toby, but I also like REK’s “salute” to him that I posted on below.
January 15, 2022 @ 4:24 pm
Meant to say “I got there in the middle.”
January 16, 2022 @ 5:44 am
Yes that would be 103.5 WYNY. They hosted lunchtime concerts at the WTC through the summer of 2001 (by that time they were no longer on 103.5, but on the rimshot 107.1 which barely penetrated NYC airwaves).
I saw a whole bunch of acts like Sons of the Desert and Darryl Worley (who played a few weeks before 9/11 when it was 102 degrees and patiently signed CDs, shirts, etc for what seemed like another hour plus).
I worked across the West Side Highway in the World Financial Center. I avoid politics on this site and am generally middle-of-the-road politics wise (which in NY means I’m to the right of Genghis Khan).
I believe I own every REK album and I know this will put me in a tiny minority here, however, I’m with Toby and Darryl. You just can’t see, smell and hear what I did on 9/11 and not be changed forever.
January 16, 2022 @ 8:26 am
I avoid politics on this site and am generally middle-of-the-road politics wise (which in NY means I’m to the right of Genghis Khan).
Unless you’re from Staten Island. 😉 I know it’s the smallest of the five NYC boroughs, but it’s got about a half a million people and seems to be decidedly red. And if you look at the NY state 2020 election results by county, it starts to get purple outside of the inner suburbs.
I left the NYC area for Northern Virginia in the early ’90s and I would say the DC area is much more country music friendly, but I was starting to get into some country influenced music without an obvious rock component in late ’80s (e.g., Nanci Grifitth, Roseanne Cash). Then, I remember coming across a classic country radio program in the car (I think it was Fairleigh Dickinson University’s WFDU 89.1) when I was looking for a blues program. And that’s when I “saw the light” with respect Hank Sr’s music (Waylon, George Jones and Hank Snow were takeaways that day as well). I knew of a few of his hits, but didn’t realize how bluesy he could be, which helped me at the time. Bought his 40 Greatest Hits album shortly thereafter.
January 16, 2022 @ 2:24 pm
I have never lived on SI, but I coincidentally drove all around it today. Some really nice parts of Staten Island and some not-so-nice parts.
I can’t think of a city that would be less country music friendly than NY. But as you mention, some of the public radio stations will periodically play country music – such as Columbia’s KCR which has the Tennessee Border Show on Sundays.
January 19, 2022 @ 9:14 am
I used to listen to WKCR’s week-long country festival but haven’t for awhile. That’s where I learned about Vernon Oxford.
January 14, 2022 @ 3:30 pm
Saw him February 2020 in Salina, Kansas. Put on a great show!! Happy I was able to catch a show before he retired. Thank you for all the great songs!
January 15, 2022 @ 2:01 am
I have had the honor of seeing more REK shows in venues large and small all over Texas over the last 20 plus years than I can count. They were all different and all good in there own way. I wish REK nothing but health and happiness moving forward. If you get the itch to play at some point we’ll be waiting but if you don’t, thanks for the music.
Secret TS fan
January 14, 2022 @ 3:37 pm
Saw him play with Willie Nelson a few years ago, great show. Glad I got so see him.
January 14, 2022 @ 4:08 pm
Ain’t got time to shoot the breeze. Got no time to blow. Excuse me mister, if you please, I gotta go! REK wrote my favorite Christmas song and for me he is like John Prine under appreciated by most but one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. I still sing along to his songs like I’m part of the tabernacle choir!
January 14, 2022 @ 5:05 pm
Speaking of the laying of foundations for the emergence of Red Dirt in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Trig, I’m waiting for you to write something about the layer of those foundations, Bob Childers. He seems to me to be a rather strangely overlooked titan of modern country music. For one thing, the only easily available recording of his is the (absolutely brilliant) album Circles Towards the Sun. Considering the importance of the Red Dirt scene for today’s independent country, I’d say that the man who gets called the father or grandfather or godfather of that scene, but nonetheless seems to me to be something of an enigma, would make a worthwhile topic.
And as long as I’m in the let-me-tell-you-what-you-ought-to-do mode 😉 I feel like the passing of the movie director Peter Bogdanovich deserves some kind of mention in country music media (maybe there was and I missed it). His movie The Thing Called Love is one of the reasons I love country music. And then there is a concert album by Richard and Linda Thompson (second mention of Richard in these comments) recorded in 1975, about a year after I was born, on which Richard introduces their rendition of “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do” by saying: “I If you saw [Bogdanovich-directed] The Last Picture Show, it’s what they play as you walk out of the cinema.” So you could say that, though Bogdanovich was a New Yorker by birth, his movies have been introducing international audiences to country music for generations.
January 14, 2022 @ 5:47 pm
Id love to see more recognition for Bob Childers, Randy Crouch, Steve Pryor, Jimmy laFave and those early folk country, outlaw hippie singer songwriters from Oklahoma. They’ve probably had as much influence on modern independent country than anyone and most people have never heard their names, let alone their music.
January 14, 2022 @ 5:19 pm
Are you freaking kidding?!
Robert Earl Keen was a BIG RED fan? As in BARQ’S BIG RED?
I once drove several hundred miles to bring several cases of BIG RED to my older brother.
Hey, go big, or don’t go.
Thom’s Country Bunker
January 14, 2022 @ 6:21 pm
Aw man. I just saw him in the summer. He was a total delight. Consummate pro.
I wish him all the best in retirement (and hope it doesn’t stick!)
January 14, 2022 @ 6:43 pm
Sad news indeed.
I got to see him twice, both times coincidentally in San Francisco and both times also pure coincidence I had the option of REK or Steve Earle.
Years later I saw Steve Earle and realised that I had made the better decision.
Robert knows how to entertain and does it with musical talent. Absolute amazing time both shows.
Good luck to the man, and I wish him all the best.
Also, Rich Brotherton is one heck of a mean guitar picker.
Blue Lake Rick
January 14, 2022 @ 8:42 pm
For years and years we would have our annual date with REK as he closed The Rooster Stage at The Hardly Strictly Festival in SF on Sat nights. Always the party of the weekend. Every Christmas we put out some bean dip and a can of fake snow in our decorations.. We’ll miss him.
January 14, 2022 @ 8:49 pm
I saw REK three times – once at Gruene Hall (the absolute best show), once at Harrah’s Casino in Bossier City, and once at a bar in Texarkana. Without a doubt one of the best songwriters and performers I’ve ever seen. I also sing along with him like I am a member of the Tabernacle Choir! I hope retirement is good for him, it is very well deserved.
January 14, 2022 @ 10:23 pm
Who can forget REK’s fine tribute song to an admired fellow artist, a part of which goes:
Now you only rant and rave
Piss and moan and misbehave
You lost your grip on that flag you wave
But you wave it right or wrong
There’s still time to make amends
Maybe win back some of your old friends
Real cowboys say the party never ends
And the road goes on and on and on…
January 15, 2022 @ 5:41 am
First met at a mutual gig while hanging outside between sets late one evening. We were in a small restaurant/cafe located directly under the end of the Olympic ski jump in Innsbruck, Austria. That was some 35+ years ago,.. and some great times followed through the years.
Tom T. Hall was right, I think, “It’s a wise man or woman who leaves The Road behind before things go sour.”
January 15, 2022 @ 7:48 am
well, everything passes i guess.. saw him 11/12 years ago in Austin w/ Lucero a great show form a true master.
January 15, 2022 @ 8:32 am
Was introduced to Keen’s music in the mid ’80s when he got airplay on the Super Roper Redneck Revue on KNON-FM in Dallas. He came out of the finest tradition of Texas storytellers. I gotto see him a few times, and you can even hear me applauding on “The Live Album,” recorded over two nights at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas’ Deep Ellum….
All those years on the road wear you down, and I’m glad he’s going to hang it up on his own terms. I doubt we’ve heard the last of him, though.
January 15, 2022 @ 10:01 am
Really enjoyed his Christmas shows. The audiences were really into it, which to me makes the shows much better. The guy sitting behind us kept yelling “Robert Keen!! Robert Keen!! (from the Front Porch Song). Somehow we didn’t mind. Everyone was just having a great time.
January 15, 2022 @ 3:20 pm
Only saw him twice, the first time in Milwaukee and Ragweed opened for him. INCREDIBLE show. Hopefully I can catch him one more time.
January 16, 2022 @ 1:48 am
I’m cosmically connected, spiritually aware.
They say I’m apathetic, but I don’t really care.
Pathetically reflective, feeling over-matched,
I wanna meet my maker with no wires attached.
January 16, 2022 @ 7:16 am
Good luck to him but I am sure retirement does not mean we will not hear from him. A unique talent.
January 16, 2022 @ 8:58 am
I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him. Also saw him twice with Lyle Lovett. I always loved the cheers from the crowd when he would start “Sherry was a waitress…”.
January 17, 2022 @ 8:33 am
I love REK’s music’s. Good luck in your retirement, man, you have us a lot of great music over the years. Happy Retirement “From the Family”…. Hey, wait, maybe there’s a song there……
January 17, 2022 @ 9:29 pm
Ride ride ride…enjoy retirement…well deserved.
January 19, 2022 @ 9:19 am
So glad to see all the loving tributes to REK. I feel the same. Love his songs and his style. (And for wit, it’s hard to beat “Don’t Turn Out the Light.”) Hearing that he’s retiring from the road makes me feel old, which is appropriate, because I am.
January 20, 2022 @ 9:04 am
I missed ever seeing the likes of Clark and Walker (both who I just found a little too late in their lives). I can’t make the same mistake with Keen. Hoping he comes through TN AL or especially Georgia on this last ride. But if not I might need to make another trip to Texas. And I’m always looking for a reason to visit Texas.
Teresa E Floyd
January 20, 2022 @ 11:19 am
Always a good time with REK at the Birchmere in Alexandria VA.
August 14, 2022 @ 9:33 pm
“There was old man Duckworth sitting on his stool watching Rich and Robert Earl talking, lying playing pool”