In his famous song "The Road Goes On Forever," Robert Earl Keen weaves the tragic story of Sherry and Sonny and their crime spree that sends Sonny to the chair, with its familiar chorus: "The road goes on forever and the party never ends." It certainly seemed like that for the tirelessly touring Keen, but now after more than four decades on the road, he's calling it quits.
- Photo Courtesy Of Melanie Maganias Nashan
- FAREWELL TOUR On his last tour, Robert Earl Keen plays the Live Oak Music Festival on June 19. Get your tickets before it's too late.
New Times spoke to the prolific singer-songwriter via phone after his gig in Tampa, Florida, before he left for another in Savanna, Georgia. Is it true? Is he really done?
"Yes, I am," he said solemnly. "On Jan. 14, I made the announcement that after 41 years of being out on the road, I was going to retire from the road life but continue in the music business and do a whole variety of things. In January, I told folks they had the next nine months to come see me, and I filled out a tour that pretty much covers places I've played over the past 41 years and specifically places I like to play. Of the 80 dates booked, we've done about 30 of those and we have about 50 more."
One of those remaining concerts is the closing night of the Live Oak Music Festival scheduled Friday, June 17, through Sunday, June 19, at El Chorro Regional Park (visit liveoakfest.org for ticket info). Keen will take the stage at 7 p.m., shortly after The Dustbowl Revival. The day's music also includes Southern Culture on the Skids, Steve Poltz, Wolf Jett, Raye Zaragoza, La Doña, The Riverside, Graybill, and Mothra. There's also a jamming workshop with Phil Salazar scheduled. The lineups for Friday and Saturday are equally impressive.
So what does life after a touring music career look like for Keen?
"I have a podcast called Americana Podcast that comes out once a month, but I'm going to have it on a more frequent basis and expand it to more than just singer-songwriters," Keen said. "I built a video studio in the last couple years, so I'm going to do more videos and more streaming. I want to create some kind of collective that helps younger artists navigate the music business and answer questions they can't get answered by their manager or record company exec."
On this final tour, fans can look forward to hearing the songs that made Keen famous: "Feelin' Good Again," "Merry Christmas From the Family," "Gringo Honeymoon," "That Buckin' Song," and many more.
"They can expect for me to hit the high points," he said. "I'm not going around doing all the side-B's or oddball songs and such; however, I do change it up every night. In general, we've extended our set from the usual 90 to 100 minutes to almost a Bruce Springsteen-like thing—without the sweat and running around stage—that gets closer to three hours. I try to play as much as I possibly can without wearing people out. The idea really truly is to put it out there for the fans. They're the ones that made this whole touring life possible."
Are there any of his hits that he just won't do anymore?
"No, I never have really gotten tired of any songs, you know? Like I said, I'm very fan oriented, and I feel lucky that they like 'em. At the same time, I like those songs for some of the same reasons because they have a cool message or a cool vibe or a cool beat, so I don't really feel like there's any kind of song that I don't still have some kind of affinity for. Who's lucky enough to write their own songs and still like 'em?"
Keen's certainly trying to go out with a bang on this final trek across the country, and like the Grateful Dead, he has some fans who are just following him around from one stop to another.
"At the end we're doing three shows in what I call my backyard, Helotes, Texas, near San Antonio, at a place called Floore's Country Store, which holds about 4,000, and they've already sold out, and there's another show in College Station, Texas, at Aggie's Park that holds 10,000."
The Live Oak Fest is one of only four California dates, which also include San Francisco's The Fillmore, Mill Valley's Sweetwater Music Hall, and the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz—Sweetwater and Rio are sold out. Does Keen remember when he played Live Oak back in 2001, 2005, and 2013?
"I remember it very well," he said. "One of my heroes is Richard Thompson [who also played the 2005 festival], and I always point him out as one of the truly great songwriters. I always tell people, 'If you really want to know about songwriting, you listen to these songs by Richard Thompson.' I got to meet him there and just got to hang out with him in the backstage tent for a little while. That was really exciting. I remember the Live Oak Festival very, very well."
It's going to be fitting to see him one more time at the 2022 Live Oak Fest. Keen's also calling all fans to join him for a beer in Texas on Labor Day.
"The final day I'm performing is on Sept. 4, but one thing I would like to mention is on Labor Day [Monday, Sept. 5], at that same place, Floore's Country Store, we're having a fan appreciation day, and it's free, but because of demand we're going to have kind of a lotto system, but make your trek all the way to San Antonio, hang out and take pictures, listen to a house band and a bunch of singers I know sing songs, drink beer—just enter that lotto. Come on down. It's just gonna be like us hanging out on Labor Day."
The rest of the best
There's a lot of great shows this week in the run-up to Live Oak that will definitely appeal to the same demographic.
Numbskull and Good Medicine present Robert PlantNation, a tribute to the music of Robert Plant, featuring Swan Montgomery of Led Zepagain on Friday, June 10, at The Siren (7 p.m.; 21-and-older; $15 presale at goodmedicinepresents.com or $20 day of show). Montgomery has been perfecting his Robert Plant impression for 34 years.
- Photo Courtesy Of Barenaked Ladies
- CANADIAN INVASION Pop rockers Barenaked Ladies play Vina Robles Amphitheatre on June 11.
Vina Robles Amphitheatre hosts Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies on Saturday, June 11 (7 p.m.; all ages; $60 to $80 at ticketmaster.com), with Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket opening. Barenaked Ladies' debut album, Gordon, had the breakout singles "If I Had $1000000" and "Brian Wilson."
- Photo Courtesy Of Neko Case
- MUSICAL ALCHEMY Alt-country chanteuse Neko Case plays the Fremont Theater on June 12.
Alt-country-rock-pop singer-songwriter Neko Case plays the Fremont Theater on Saturday, June 11 (8 p.m.; $46 to $53 at seetickets.us). A fearless and inventive songwriter, Case has a voice like honey that belies an undercurrent of ferocity. Her untrained contralto is a force of nature.
"I never knew where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do with my voice," she said in press materials, "but I just wanted to do it so bad. I'm just trying to be myself as hard as I can."
Fremont Theater also hosts folk rock and country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter on Sunday, June 12 (7:30 p.m.; all ages; $59.50 to $86.50 at eventbrite.com). Her hits like "Passionate Kisses" and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" have propelled her to five Grammy Awards and 15 nominations. She's touring in support of The Dirt and the Stars (2020). Δ
Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at firstname.lastname@example.org.