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One Last Party at the Ryman With Robert Earl Keen

So I caught my first Robert Earl Keen show, at the Ryman here in Nashville. Good thing too, since the legendary Texas songwriter is on his last tour. The road, apparently, does not go on forever. The party eventually ends.

And party it was.

The Robert Earl Keen experience lands somewhere between Townes Van Zandt and Jimmy Buffett; a masterful blend of songwriting skill, friendly banter, and the “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” thirst for a never-ending good time.

“There’s only one rule,” Keen told the 2,300 plus fans who filled the Ryman pews. “Have as much fun as possible.”

Most in the audience were clearly there to do exactly that, and to say good-bye to an old friend.

Keen is best known on the roots/Americana scene, though he draws fans from country and rock. He’s revered among songwriters and lovers of the craft for his honest, vivid portrayals of outlaw life as well as everyday pleasures.

Adding to the fun of the evening was the fact that it was February, and we were watching a Christmas show. Covid forced the rescheduling of Keen’s Christmas show. So this was the make-good.

This was perfect for me, as I came late to the Robert Earl Keen experience thanks to his holiday classic, “Merry Christmas From the Family.” You don’t hear it much in the usual radio rotation of holiday songs, unless you listen to, say, WMOT in Nashville, or XM Radio’s Outlaw Country. The song and honestly chronicles the boozy adventures of a down-home country Christmas.

From the very first lines … “Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk/At our Christmas Party” … the entire audience was singing like they were in church, rising to a crescendo for the chorus:

“Carve the turkey turn the ballgame on

Mix bloody Mary’s, cause we all want one

Send somebody to the Kwik Pak store

We need some ice and an extension cord

A can of bean dip and some Diet Rite

A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights.

Hallelujah everybody say cheese

Merry Christmas from the Fam-o-leeee”

As much as I was there for that chestnut, however, what I really wanted to hear was another Keen classic, a decades-old song that perfectly captures the mood we all are having – or at least ready to have soon – as the Covid cloud lifts.

Feeling Good Again” follows a narrator as he returns to a favorite bar after a long absence. Maybe he is finally recovered from an illness. Or maybe, as Keen suggested at the show, he was strung out from the road. What matters is we feel along with him the sublime pleasure of reconnecting with the familiar as the stars align for a great evening, even if it is a basement bar in a dusty Texas town.

“There was old man Perkins Sittin' on his stool Watchin' Butch and Jimmy John Talkin' loud and playin' pool The boys from Silver City Were standin' by the fire Singin' like they thought They were the Tabernacle choir And I wanted you to see them all I wished that you were there I looked across the room And saw you standin' on the stair And when I caught your eye I saw you break into a grin It feels so good feelin' good again”

Keen shows are legendary for the rowdy sing-along style, which I knew from listening to any of his several live albums. The perfect venue for Keen is a large bar or theatre, or an outdoor festival. The Ryman worked too, and Keen offered a tribute to a town he – like all great songwriters, it seems – lived in for a while.

“This town was very good to me,” he said of Nashville.

What stood out, apart from the quality of his best songs, was his insistence on having fun. He and the band dressed entirely in white, somehow resembling singing snowmen. In keeping with the “road to Christmas” theme of the show, he asked each band member to pick a road song. Thus did we here (and sing along to) Roger Miller’s classic “King of the Road,” as well as the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.”

There was even a bit of stageplay late in the evening, as someone – clearly planned – yelled out “Freebird!”

“Really? Seriously?” Keen said. “Well okay then.”

And he and the band ripped ripped into the Skynyrd classic.

“That’s for all the people who yelled that at me over the years!” Keen said with a smile when the song ended.

Keen has is own Freebird, of sorts, a show-stopper that everyone comes to hear. “The Road Goes on Forever” is a worthy addition to the genre of “outlaw-and-his-girlfriend-on-the-run” songs. And the crowd jumped to its feet when they heard the familiar first lines.

“Sherry was a waitress

at the only joint in town She had a reputation

as a girl who'd been around Down Main Street after midnight

with a brand new pack of cigs A fresh one hangin' from her lips

and a beer between her legs She'd ride down to the river

and meet with all her friends The road goes on forever

and the party never ends”

I’m not sure why it’s ending for Keen. But it is as of September 4th, the end of his current tour. I’m glad I got to see him.


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