Robert Earl Keen

ARISTA AUSTIN RECORDING ARTIST Robert Earl Keen’s relentless performing and fanatical following reaches far beyond the traditional country folk audiences that come to mind when you visualize a singer/songwriter from the Lonestar State; a large percentage of Keen’s fans are college kids who have discovered the Texas artist’s ragged tales of loners, losers, desperados and outlaws.

To draw and keep those fans, Keen performs more than 100 dates a year. He told POLLSTAR that his continuous performing — and progressive booking strategies — have been instrumental in the development of his career.

Keen launched his career playing solo gigs around Texas. He soon realized that playing regularly in only one or two clubs wouldn’t provide a good avenue for career growth. When he felt he was getting too big for a certain place, he’d move on — and not look back.

Keen would often get calls from irritated promoters saying, “Why are you leaving our club? We have packed houses every time you play.” His response was always the same: “Listen, I just can’t play your place forever. I have to move on.”

To the chagrin of others, Keen took personal responsibility to find clubs that were not the flavor of the day. “I have had some serious knock-down, drag-out fights about the whole thing,” Keen said. “And as a matter of fact, in 1991, we had an argument with a bunch of little-bitty deal promoters around San Antonio.”

By then, Keen had signed on to work with Keith Case & Associates. With the artist’s input, Case created the “World Tour of San Antonio,” in which Keen performed in the Texas city five nights in a row at different clubs. The “tour” was designed to prove that he could draw as well at different clubs as he did at the good ol’ standby honky-tonk. Keen and Case did the same thing in Dallas in 1993, with very positive results.

The agent and the artist met when Keen lived — for a brief time — in Nashville. It was recommended to Keen that he leave Texas for Music City to pursue his career but once he got to Nashville, he felt the city wasn’t very nurturing to performers and that Music City executives focused more on publishing and recording than live performances.

Nashville did have one advantage over Texas; a lot of booking agencies are based there. Keen had been booking himself but wasn’t very consistent about it. Also, he had absolutely no clout in the business. “I was more kind of the Brute Force of Ignorance Booking Agency,” Keen said.

Even though he signed with Case, he refused to give up the booking reigns. It is the same today, although the agency has changed. Keen is now represented by Steve Hoiberg at Monterey Artists and works with him just as closely. “We collaborate 100 percent on almost every tour,” Keen said.

Keen’s personal hand in the development of his career extends into retail. He has sold his CDs and T-shirts on the road for years. Keen said, in the past, if a club had some kind of prohibitive rule about an artist selling his own merchandise, he would generally tell them to go jump in a lake.

Today, he doesn’t have the same freedom because he performs in more established venues. It is standard for the house to take a cut of the merchandise, but it’s a standard that really gets Keen’s goat. “I tell you what, [the merchandising thing] is my big soapbox. That whole deal about [paying a percentage to the house] offends me though the roof,” Keen said. “I think it’s the most chicken shit thing. Whoever thought of it, Bill Graham or whoever, I give them an A-plus for thinkin’ of it. Everybody else gets an F for bandwagoning on that deal. They don’t do anything for that money…. That’s stealin’ [and] I just don’t like it. It’s criminal. It is scandalous.”

Another thing that really bothers Keen is manufactured performers. Keen prefers working with artists like himself who are compelled to perform, rather than acts that have been put together by record companies or managers. “As soon as everybody pulls out from [those manufactured acts], they’ve got nothing because they don’t know what they’re out there for in the first place,” he said. “I’m interested in being with musicians who are out there because they can’t help it, just like me. That’s my whole thing. And I’m in it ’til I die.”

Speaking of musicians, Keen now tours with a full-time band. When club gigs gave way to bigger, 1,000-plus facilities, Keen realized he needed a bigger sound. He put together a band and is adamant about letting people know that he is no longer performing solo.

He said the job of booking a band is very tough compared to getting gigs as a solo performer. Keen is constantly offered relatively more money as a solo artist. Despite the financial benefits of performing alone, Keen doesn’t want to send mixed messages. So he holds firm when it comes to the solo artist vs. band issue. “I can go so many more places with the band than I can as a solo act. The way I look at it is, the bet paid off.”