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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Keen, Lovett tap into common roots

Robert Earl Keen will perform with Lyle Lovett on Sunday night at Northern Quest Resort & Casino. (Barry Brecheisen / Associated Press)
Robert Earl Keen will perform with Lyle Lovett on Sunday night at Northern Quest Resort & Casino. (Barry Brecheisen / Associated Press)
By Jaci Webb Billings Gazette

Apparently in Texas, folks fall into two camps.

There is the beans and tortilla crowd, which Robert Earl Keen said he’s a member of, and the biscuits and gravy group, which his longtime friend, collaborator and fellow Texan Lyle Lovett is part of.

So when Lovett, one long-ago morning, showed up at Keen’s house in his 1967 Wildcat to drive him to Bryan, Texas, there was some reluctance on Keen’s part when he heard it was for biscuits and gravy.

“Lyle always kept things really together, very organized. And he said, ‘I want to take you to this place called Mom’s with the best biscuits and gravy in the state.’ We went to downtown Bryan where you got to this house and sit at a long table with people you don’t know, which I was not into. Then Mom comes out with these plates of biscuits and gravy and I started to like the place.”

Keen and Lovett are teaming up again for a national tour, which makes a sold-out stop at Northern Quest Resort & Casino on Sunday.

During a phone interview with the Billings Gazette, Keen talked about writing songs at 60, reading up on Charlie Russell and why so many Texans are good musicians.

Keen likes to zero in on what matters most to him: family time and staying true to his musical roots. He said the only way he knows how to write is with authenticity, the way he’s been penning tunes since the 1980s, including one of his most well-known songs, “Merry Christmas from the Family.”

“I grew up with a lot of people who focused so much about the past. It’s great to have a few laughs drinking with your buddies, playing the old songs and talking about the past. But I’m trying to be in the moment. I’ve gotten to the point where I try to look for things that validate living in this time.”

Keen grew in Houston and earned an English degree in 1978 from Texas A & M. He still loves books, including one he picked up last year in Montana when he performed a show at Big Sky.

“It’s a book on Charles Russell, and there was a letter from him from 1882 that shows a dirt crossroad, and he wrote, ‘I think I need to move. It’s getting too crowded in Montana.’ ”

Even though Keen said he enjoys the nostalgia of the image, he appreciates where he is right now, with information at his fingertips and the ability to travel anywhere.

“There’s a road out by my place in Texas, and I look at it and think I could drive out there and go anywhere from here to Nova Scotia or Alaska. And there’s an airport down that road that could take me to Beijing by tomorrow.”

Keen said music came naturally to him, like it does to so many Texans who grew up sitting in on porch jam sessions, including the ones he and Lovett participated in when they wrote, “Front Porch Song.”

So just what makes music so big in Texas?

“The weather has something to do with it,” Keen said. “We have moderate weather, and from the late 19th century, people got together at events and there was always music going. One of the big stories is Davy Crockett played the violin at the Alamo. I wouldn’t think about playing hockey, but if I lived in Saskatchewan I would. It’s an association.”

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