Robert Earl Keen: Cain's Ballroom

Robert Earl Keen: Cain's Ballroom

Cain’s Ballroom. July 19, 2019- A timeless honky tonk, a Texas legend, and an opening act with some historical roots. A night at the Cain’s Ballroom is always a special treat, but this night in particular was extra extraordinary. Waylon Payne took the stage alongside guitarist and friend, Dean Pearson. Payne played a set of originals, to include a personal favorite, “Sins of the Father,” along with a couple of very notable covers. After taking requests from the early arriving and very energetic Cain’s crowd, they were treated to an improvised version of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Payne also played another very notable and very personal cover. He told the story of how his momma, Sammi Smith, had met a janitor in Nashville that wrote a song for her to play. That janitor was none other than Kris Kristofferson and the song was “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” His momma would win a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1972. 

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Just moments after the opening set from Waylon Payne, Robert Earl Keen and his all-star band came out to a steady roar from the crowd. Keen grabbed his guitar and rolled into the opening number. Keen, distinguished, and his band, polished, put forth a clean set full of timeless classics from his albums of the past. Between songs, REK would throw out some one liners that kept the crowd engaged. Halfway through the set, the one liners faded as the band went out from one song and in to the next, picking up the pace and matching the energy of the crowd. Robert Earl Keen and his band provided fans with another memorable night at the historic Cain’s Ballroom. Those in attendance would say it was an instant classic, so take note, anytime REK is in your town, just go to the show. 

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Waylon Payne has country music in his blood.  He’s named for his Godfather, the one and only Waylon Jennings. His father Jody Payne, was a longtime picker for Willie Nelson, and his mother, Sammi Smith, is a Grammy Award-winning country singer who toured with Waylon Jennings. He intended to become a preacher, but instead discovered a fondness for beer and marijuana, perhaps a bit of unfortunate foreshadowing for things that were yet to come for him.

He found himself in LA, as part of the Eastbound and Down Country Night, alongside artists like Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam. He also somewhere along the line, found a serious relationship with harder drugs and, after his mother died in 2005, spiraled out of control to a point that nearly killed him. It didn’t, now he’s back to his original calling, clean and sober and better than ever. “Call me a troubadour, I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll take up that torch.” He’s writing again with folks like LeeAnn Womack and Wade Bowen, and lyrics from “7.28” are a witness to that torch, which is without a doubt, burning bright:

I don’t ever want to hear this song again / cause you were here the moment it began / the melody forever will remain / the song ain’t even sung its last refrain / and the cigarette I’m holdin’ ain’t been smoked / the coffee in my cup’s not even cold

He writes and sings with honesty, like a person who’s almost lost everything. “I’m doing what God said to do, I think,” he says.  “I’m singing. I’m being honest. I’m telling stories… and I like that about my life.”

To try to sum up Robert Earl Keen in a simple paragraph or two is a task. How do you condense thirty-some-odd-years of a music career into such a small space? I think the best way to begin is with this quote from the man himself, “I always thought that I wanted to play music, and I always knew that you had to get some recognition in order to continue to play music. But I never thought of it in terms of getting to be a big star. I thought of it in terms of having a really, really good career and writing some good songs, and getting onstage and having a really good time." That’s strikingly evident in every word, every song, and every show, and it’s worn on the face of every fan who’s ever attended a performance.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

He was born to a geologist and an attorney, and found his love of music in classic rock and Willie Nelson. He eventually went to Texas A&M (WHOOP!!!) as an English major, where he began teaching himself guitar and the beginnings of songwriting, which blossomed into a stint in a bluegrass band, as well as those infamous front porch picking sessions with fellow Aggie, Lyle Lovett. It was 1984 that found him releasing his self-financed and produced debut album, No Kinda Dancer, just after winning the Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk songwriting competition in 1983. The rest of the decade saw a move to Nashville and subsequent return home to Texas, and two more albums, one including the song that has become the anthem to more than a couple of generations of music listeners,” The Road Goes on Forever.”

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

The nineties were, in short, a breakout period for Keen. From Gruene Hall to the Bowery Ballroom in NYC, tickets were selling, audiences were growing, and the music was flowing. Five albums came out of that time frame. Americana was officially recognized by the music industry, and Keen’s “song craft, razor wit and killer band” were a huge part of that movement. 

Since then, his career has continued to thrive, branching out to even include recording The Bluegrass Sessions, called a ‘love song to bluegrass,” and something he had wanted to do for a long time. 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of “A Bigger Piece of Sky,” and to mark the occasion, the album is being released on vinyl later this year. There’s a lot to celebrate and be thankful for, if you’re Robert Earl Keen. He’s been named a Texas A&M Distinguished Alumni, and was the first recipient of BMI’s official Troubadour Award, which is given to songwriters who have made a lasting impact on the songwriting community. He continues to tour and fill theaters and dance halls, playing to sold-out houses with icons like Willie Nelson, while keeping up a packed schedule of shows with his band, some of whom have been with him for more than twenty years.  The tightness that comes from being with a band of brothers and musicians for that length of time was on display at Cain’s this night.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Bill Whitbeck began playing bass about the eighth grade and was playing in bands around the Texas Gulf Coast by the time he graduated from high school in La Porte. He went to Texas State in San Marcos, where he continued to play in clubs and dancehalls. He got the opportunity to audition for REK in 1995 and he’s been there ever since.

Bill Whitbeck. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Tom Van Shaik (drums) has been playing since an early age. He attended the University of North Texas, where he studied under their world famous music program, majoring in Jazz Studies and minoring in Music Theory. During that time, he freelanced all over Texas, even joining up with The Dixie Chicks, and then becoming part of the REK Band in 1997. 

Tom Van Shaik. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Marty Muse (pedal steel, lap steel and dobro) began making music in Chicago in the mid-seventies. He then made his way to California, back to the Midwest and then on to Austin in 1985. He’s been with the REK Band since the early 2000s, but before that, he performed with The Derailers, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Dwight Yoakum, and Rick Trevino.

Marty Muse. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Kym Warner was asked to play mandolin on the 2015 album Happy Prisoner as well as Live Dinner Reunion and has been with the band since. Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Kym is a Four-Time Australian Mandolin Champion and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist and is a founding member of the progressive acoustic band The Greencards. To his name, he has three GRAMMY nominations, a #1 Billboard Bluegrass Album, an Americana Award for 'Best New Artist' and a national tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

Kym Warner. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Another Texas native, and lifelong REK fan, Brian Beken is Houston born and raised. He picked up the violin at age 8, and was quickly taken by the fiddle. He is a multi-instrumentalist also, playing the guitar, bass, mandolin, and other instruments in local Houston/College Station bands. A stint at UT Austin was cut short when he joined the South Austin Jug Band, with whom he toured the US and Europe for five years. He toured with Bruce Robison and many other Austin talents before he came on as Keen’s fiddler.

Brian Beken. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

Last but not least, is Charles Ray, ‘The Sound Guy.’ He’s been in the sound business in Austin since 1975. As a chief engineer for 23 years, he has mostly worked with Joe Ely, Jerry Jeff Walker, Delbert McClinton, and the Texas Tornadoes. He was a member of the Uranium Savages, on guitar and vocals. Something he said really summed up the experience of working with Robert Earl Keen, as noted by the other band members: 

“I've worked with many a great Texas musician, but when I went to work full time with Robert Earl Keen in August of 1999, it felt like home. He's the most generous, kind boss I've had (not to mention the best songwriter I've known). And damned funny, too. The music is wonderful, the band is the best, the camaraderie fun and it's a great place for me to be.”

The road indeed does go on forever, and the party is far from over, but the best part seems to be that Keen’s intention of having a good time while making music has created a family and community that everyone is excited and proud to be a part of.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Payne

For more on Robert Earl Keen: robertearlkeen.com

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