As Robert Earl Keen walked off of the stage of the Ryman Auditorium this past fall, the audience remained firmly in the famous church pews. They knew it wasn't over yet because he still had yet to play the song. After a minute or so, he returned to the microphone and said with a sly grin, "I knew I couldn't get out of here tonight without playing this," and jumped into "The Road Goes on Forever."
The Bonnie and Clyde-style tale of two lovers against the world has become the anthem of Keen's career, and the song's 20th anniversary is this year.
Keen's just-released book, The Road Goes on Forever and the Music Never Ends, offers insight into the motivations behind some of his favorite songs, including "The Road Goes on Forever." It's also a personal scrapbook and photo album that recounts Keen's career as seen through his own eyes.
Also recently released is the first tribute album to Keen, Undone: A MusicFest Tribute to Robert Earl Keen, recorded in January 2008 at MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colo. It features performances of Keen's songs by Reckless Kelly, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, Cody Canada (of Cross Canadian Ragweed), Chris Knight, Jason Boland and many, many more. He speaks of it as a huge honor.
The largely-acoustic album was recorded live in concert and includes 27 intimate tracks on two CDs. Part of the proceeds will benefit the Center for Texas Music History, a program based at Texas State University in San Marcos.
In reading through the Undone liner notes, introductions to each song by the performers make it apparent that Keen's approach to storytelling has influenced and inspired a new generation of writers.
But 20 years ago, that unique approach had not yet been discovered by fans or the music community. Keen's career had already stalled once, and it looked like it might again. He needed something big, and what he came up with was just that. "The Road Goes on Forever" would prove to be career-defining and at the root of this year's celebration.
He recounted the story during an interview with CMT.com.
In 1988, Keen was in Nashville to work on his third album, West Textures. Jim Rooney, the producer famous for working with Townes Van Zandt and Nanci Griffith, had been secured for the album. Rooney came to a startling realization just before work began.
"We were set to do this record on Monday ... two days recording, two days mixing ... 'cause that's all the budget would allow," says Keen. "We're there Friday [previewing songs for Rooney], and he says 'I don't think we really have a song to hang our hat on here.'"
Rooney recommended postponing the album, a reaction which could have brought Keen's run to a screeching halt. Living on a shoestring budget, he had sunk everything he had into this one last shot.
"I was living on nickels and dimes at the time," Keen said. "I was like, 'I can't do that ... I can't even afford to come back up here.'"
But Rooney knew that they needed something special.
Keen recalls, "I said [to Rooney], 'Listen, I've got this song that I wrote a few verses for a few months ago. I think that if you just give me until Sunday, I'll figure it out. If you like it then, we'll go in. Is that a deal? Otherwise you can cancel it.'"
Rooney agreed, and Keen returned to a friend's house to work.
Sitting in a backyard, determined to finish the song and impress Rooney enough to continue the project, Keen went over his tale of the troubled lovers, Sonny and Sherry.
"The Sonny and Sherry characters are based on real characters that just couldn't stay out of trouble," he explains. "And they just, no matter what happened, no matter what fortune fell on them, they would screw that up. That's where it started from."
He knew the idea was good, but he had no idea how to present it. "I have a tendency to go surreal or comedic or bizarre [with songwriting], and I kept trying to travel those avenues, and it didn't feel right," says Keen.
"When Jim said, 'I gotta have this song,' it forced me to sit down and say, 'What's really gonna happen? How is this really going to play out? How does it make a really great story?'"
The new perspective worked, and Keen was able to create a bittersweet love story that is far from a tale of innocent romance but makes the listener root for the couple nonetheless. That Sunday he went to see Rooney for what he calls an "embarrassing" meeting.
"It's always embarrassing trying to pour your heart out to somebody to get their attention," says Keen. "I played about three verses of the song, and he goes, 'Oh, that's it. We've got it.' And I went, 'Really?'"
The recording went ahead as planned, and West Textures was released in 1989. Although sales were slow, the song's popularity grew, spurred on with the help of a cover by fellow Texan Joe Ely and followed by many others, including the Highwaymen.
"It kind of became my anthem," says a reflective Keen.
Twenty years later, the song is still one of his most popular works. He plays it at the end of every show or risks hoards of disappointed fans surrounding his bus. But Keen is usually happy to oblige.
"If I ended up in Branson, Mo.," he says, "I'd play it five times a day."