Robert Earl Keen may plant his flag in Kerrville, Texas now, but the Houston native always loved the Astros. So when the Major League Baseball team finally secured its first World Series, you better believe Keen was watching.
“The whole band are baseball fans,” Keen tells Wide Open Country. “Some of them are rabid, and some of them are more casual like me. But I’ve always been an Astros fan and this was a huge year for them. For once I didn’t have that sinking feeling that they snuck in and might have a chance. I felt pretty good, and they looked great. It was exciting.”
And Keen knows the power something like that holds. “With all the problems Houston faced in the past several months, it just really helped to rally the spirit,” he says. Keen did his part to help Hurricane Harvey victims by joining in on benefit concerts, something he says he was lucky and honored to be a part of.
The Hurricane brought mixed emotions for Keen. On the one hand, he actually enjoyed some of the storms growing up as a kid. “Some of my greatest memories were all the lights going out and lighting candles in the house,” Keen says. “And going down to the bayou. Hanging out with the tough kids you’d normally avoid in school. But everybody was just swimming in the same petri dish of disaster. But this storm surpassed that by a mile. This was not what I experienced as a child. This was the Armageddon of it.”
But he is impressed by the spirit and pace with which the town seems to be recovering. And with the holidays right around the corner, Keen plans to bring his own version of “spirit” back to town.
Back to the country
Keen embarks on his sixth annual Christmas tour just after Thanksgiving. Dubbed “Robert Earl Keen’s Fam-O-Lee Back To The Country Jamboree,” it’s his most extensive tour yet. That includes his normal show in Houston, where it started, but also 18 other dates spanning the Southeast and East Coast.
“It’s been my dream to take the Christmas tour out of Houston ever since we formatted it,” he says. The unique tour is equal parts Broadway musical, comedy show, cover band, Christmas celebration and just about whatever else the band feels up to that night.
“We change the theme every year,” Keen notes. This year, for instance, is a country-rock theme. That’s why they borrow the title from Neil Young’s song “Get Back To The Country.” Everybody in the band dresses up as somebody who embodies that theme, from Tom Petty to Dwight Yoakam. But Keen does have veto power.
“So if somebody says, ‘I want to be Leo Sayer,’ I’m like, ‘Nobody fucking knows who Leo Sayer is! And he’s not even country rock!'” Keen laughs. “So they go, ‘Well ok I’ll think of something else.'”
Half of the fun of the Christmas show is never knowing who is going to come out or what the band is going to play. “It just happens willy-nilly,” Keen says. “One year Trace Adkins showed up at our San Antonio show. I didn’t really know him, and he wanted to sing ‘Copenhagen,’ which is not a Christmas song. But I was like, ‘Great!’ And he’s like six foot six, so he’s kind of a giant, and he leans over to me on stage and says, ‘Hey man I wrote my own verse and I want to sing it.’ Not only did he not stutter, but the verse was really, really funny. I was like, ‘Damn man, nice job!'”
But there are several constants, too. The show features a large backdrop and set pieces to help set the mood, plus a regular cast of openers.
That includes Doyle and Debbie, the famed Nashville musical parody act. “I never saw their show but I had the record and I loved it,” Keen says. He eventually met the pair and stayed in touch. Then when it came time to put the new Christmas tour together, he “timidly” asked them. “Not only were they game for the show, but they were already in on the joke of dressing up,” Keen says. Doyle and Debbie do a truncated version of their show to open the evening.
Twenty years in the making
Though this is only the sixth regular year for the tour, it has roots back twenty years go, when Keen first released his Christmas song “Merry Christmas From The Family.” The tongue-in-cheek tune about Christmases as Keen experienced became a fan favorite.
“We used to play shows during the Christmas season and people would be milling about waiting for that song,” Keen laughs. “They wouldn’t even pay attention to the rest of the show. So we made a show that fits more in line with that whole theme.” The song also inspired a coffee table book.
If the whole thing sounds a bit overwhelming, Keen keeps it very simple to understand. “The way I would summarize it is if you’re not in the Christmas spirit, come to this show and I guarantee you will be by the time you walk out,” Keen says. “It’s a feel-good situation.”
Stops including Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium and New York City’s Town Hall. You can check out all the dates for the tour on the Robert Earl Keen website.