Texas Troubadour pauses at Pisgah

Michael Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News
Robert Earl Keen's best-known song,"The Road Goes on Forever," also speaks to his longevity as one of America's best-loved Americana songwriters.

As Americana standout Robert Earl Keen has sung regularly since his most famous song’s release in 1989, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”

Fortunately for his countless fans in the area, the Kerrville, Texas resident is rolling back to the region for an outdoor stage gig at Pisgah Brewing Co. on Friday, July 15, following up on a popular show there last year.

“I’ve always liked the area,” Keen, who has been playing in Western North Carolina for more than two decades, said recently. “I’m drawn to the natural topography.  And the weather is beautiful,” the Houston native said. “I’ve had several friends myself move over to that part of the U.S.”

Keen is known for his sharply crafted lyrics and keen sense of melody, particularly the Bonnie & Clyde anthem “The Road Goes on Forever,” along with tunes such as “Feelin’ Good Again” and “The Front Porch Song.” The singer, songwriter and guitarist has a trunk load of awards - he's a Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee (2012) and a BMI Troubadour Award winner for songwriting (2015). Keen has also written tunes for other headlining artists, including George Strait and Nanci Griffith.

A 1980 graduate of Texas A&M University (where he met Lyle Lovett and with whom he still tours), Keen has recorded 19 full-length albums since the ‘80s, each reflecting different styles of country, rock, folk and bluegrass. Equally notable as a songwriter and performer, Keen earned Billboard magazine's number 2 Bluegrass Artist and number 2 Bluegrass Album awards last year for his latest release, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” - not bad for his first full-length album of bluegrass, which he calls “America’s purest form of music.”

Part of the attraction to the genre was stepping off the songwriting train he’d been on. “I just wanted to do it,” Keen said.  “I had an A-list group of bluegrass musicians. It just turned out to be a really fun experience.”

Along with bluegrass, the sounds of the WNC mountains have long attracted him. “I’ve always been a fan of Appalachian music,” he said. “I saw Doc Watson and followed him around like a one-man Grateful Dead.”

The recent death of Ralph Stanley also impacted him. “I’ve been a fan of the Stanley Brothers for a long time. He got some limelight toward the end of his life,” Keen noted, through Stanley's musical contribution to the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Though Keen isn't played much on commercial radio, he performs his deep catalog live more than 130 times a year, all with the same band he’s had for 22 years. “It’s like a machine, and as the machine gets older, it gets better,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to do this without a huge hit. It’s extremely special.”

At the Pisgah Brewing Co. show, look for more bluegrass in the wake of his latest release. But don't expect his timeless-but-twisted holiday hit “Merry Christmas From the Family,” which he generally reserves for colder months.

Recognition and awards aside, what drives Keen's songwriting after all the years is pure love.

“It’s a lifelong pursuit,” he said. “It’s not only a challenge, but a reason to get up in the morning. I write because I really enjoy it.”

Goes on forever

Who: Robert Earl Keen, with Raising Caine

When: 7:30 p.m. July 15 

Where: Pisgah Brewing Co. 

Cost: $25 advance, $30 door