The road is ending for Robert Earl Keen, the music will never stop

The Kerrville music legend is retiring from touring in September, but there's still a lot to accomplish.

Robert Earl Keen, a key player in Texas music royalty, stopped by Pint and Plow on Monday morning to chat about his upcoming tour and his impending retirement from touring during The Lead Live.

Last month, Keen announced that he would step away from touring after Labor Day weekend. That means his already-sold-out Hill Country Youth Orchestra benefit concert on Feb. 26 will be the last for that event. He will also perform one last time on the Fourth of July at Louise Hays Park.


It will be a busy few months for the singer-songwriter, who first gained acclaim in 1983 for winning the songwriting contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival. He has gone on to tour the world, and later this week, he will play at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

"I'm making the most of it," Keen said of his final tour stops. "There are places that I want to repeat."

Repeating places means playing Chicago — the first place performed outside of Texas 41 years ago. His current schedule of shows in Texas, Colorado and Utah will keep him busy through the end of March, and then he expects another update to the schedule leading him to his final performance.

He does not fear retirement, and the romance of the road is long gone.

"I saw Willie Nelson about a year ago and I was talking about the bus. He goes: 'it's your home.''' Keen recalled. "No, I kind of do want to leave my home here. You know, this one with the rubber tires."

What he really wants to do now is reconnect with other musicians, and he's been doing that through his Americana podcast.

"It's been mind-blowing as far as like opening me up to a lot of new artists that I wasn't aware of or just barely aware of," Keen said of his podcast. "When you, when you go on the road, what people don't know is that you're really insulated, and you and you might go to a lot of festivals, and you might see some friends and stuff, but you don't hang out, write songs, that kind of thing.

"You become somewhat isolated, and you have to really work to continue to be part of the music community,"

Keen's focus going forward will be writing and the podcast.

"Well, I've I've always been a writer and storyteller as long as I can remember it," Keen said. "Any kids, you know, with their coloring book and their little big chief tablet and stuff to just write stories, and I always had that interest. I remember using the word 'silhouette' when I was like six years old and looking it up to spell it and showing my mom that I used that word, but I didn't really know what it meant.

But through the years, Keen developed a love of language and story. The Americana genre is a wide-ranging one — full of influences.

"I would say it's roots-based music which is inclusive of country, blues, string band, bluegrass, but definitely singer-songwriter," Keen said, "I would say the singer-songwriter part is probably the part that you almost have to qualify to consider yourself Americana."

Keen has called the Hill Country home for nearly 35 years now, most of that in Kerrville. He has seen the community grow artistically, and part of that is his work with the Hill Country Youth Orchestra — an organization that he's supported for the last 15 years.

"Oh, it's, you know, where you finally find your place," Keen said of Kerrville. "You know, I found my place. So, being out there in Medina, as much as I love it, I spend a lot of time out there; still, this is, you know, this has everything one needs and then not too much."

That not too much part might perfectly explain the Hill Country Youth Orchestra.

"No. 1, it's the only one in the country that's free, and I've had people argue with me that you know, they had, well, we have this little thing over here in San Francisco or Tacoma or what wherever but it turns out none of those are really free," Keen said of the orchestra, which has deeply-rooted successes in producing elite musicians.

Keen praises the work of Linda Ables, who helped develop the orchestra over the last 35 years, and the continued commitment to the orchestra through the years. Keen's concert has raised more than $150,000 for the orchestra.

"Those kids start out playing Twinkle Twinkle using the Suzuki method, which is a really great method, and from the time they start there, and they graduate through high school, they've graduated people that went to Harvard or the Juilliard or Interlochen," Keen said.

"I've watched kids six years old show up, and you thought that they can't, you know, not only can they not tie their shoe, but they couldn't even blow a whistle," Keen said. "And when they got to be 11 or 12, all of a sudden, man, it just like the, you know, they were imbued by God or something, and they and they could play, and then, some of em just got so good that you just, you were amazed at that that you know, that they had that talent, but that talent would have never ever come to fruition had it not been for the Hill Country Youth Orchestra and those teachers and all the people that help all those kids."

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