Raspy-voiced Texas songwriter has endeared himself to George Strait, Lyle Lovett and countless fans with his irreverent style
Robert Earl Keen ought to be sick of Christmas. He hasn’t had a break from the holiday for the past 24 years, thanks to “Merry Christmas From the Family,” a wildly irreverent song that’s taken on such a life of its own that he has trouble sticking to his rule of playing it only after Labor Day. But you won’t hear Keen complaining about it.
“I’m not going to get out of here alive without playing the Christmas song, so I might as well make it bigger,” says Keen, as he relaxes on a bench outside a practice space in Austin, Texas. His red cheeks are framed by a bushy, pepper-gray beard and a beret that he wears cocked and turned backwards on his head. “I feel lucky enough to write songs and have people request the songs I write. Why would I want to turn my back on that?”
Keen, who lives on a ranch near Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country, made the two-hour trek into town on this November day with his daughter Clara to rehearse for his Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree. The annual holiday tour, first held in 2012, is the latest spinoff of “Merry Christmas From the Family,” joining a sequel song, a coffee-table book, and numerous covers that came before it. Montgomery Gentry earned a Top 40 country hit with their version in 2001.
“I live for hearing his Christmas song. I never go through the Christmas season without listening to it at least once,” says Nanci Griffith of Keen’s 1994 original, a Clark W. Griswold-worthy satire of family dysfunction and drunken, intolerant in-laws. “It’s just funny and you can relate to it personally because it’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re all stuck here together.'”
Each holiday tour features a different theme. The 2017 run saw Keen’s band members, most of whom have been with him for 15 years or more – the longest serving, guitarist Rich Brotherton, has logged nearly a quarter century – play Christmas-costume dress-up to sing covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Dwight Yoakam. Kitschy props that reference lyrics from “Merry Christmas From the Family” adorned the stage, like the “box of tampons” that evokes an awkward sing-along and a pack of Salem Lights.
“It escalated to where we could play as much in December as we wanted to. But it was always strange because it wasn’t like a regular show. Pretty much all the people were waiting for that one song,” says Keen. “After a while, we got to thinking: ‘We got to do something more than this. We got to have more fun ourselves.'”
But Keen is far from some novelty holiday act. While he’s not a well-known figure, he has amassed a passionate fan base of rednecks, hippies, frat boys and country scholars who swoon over his real-life lyrics and give-no-shits attitude. George Strait is a fan and has tapped him to open some of his Las Vegas concerts. He’s also cut Keen’s tracks, as have the Dixie Chicks, the Highwaymen and Joe Ely, among many others. To Keen’s fans, his songs “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Gringo Honeymoon” and “The Front Porch Song” are American classics, helping make him arguably the most important figure to the formation of Red Dirt music as we know it. Still, for all the acclaim and influence, he’s never quite fit into the country music ecosystem.