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Robert Earl Keen: Pioneer, Living Legend, and Texas Music Inspiration

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Originally published in Heart of Texas Magazine

When last I spoke with Robert Earl Keen, he was gearing up for his Christmas variety show, entitled “REK’s Fam-O-Lee Back to the Country Jamboree.” The Texas-born singer and songwriter took the project on as a labor of love and launched the show on November 27, 2017, after having worked on it from April of that year. Meeting rave reviews from those in attendance, he continued on with still more personal passions, including the Hill Country Youth Orchestras.

Keen took the time to do a phone interview on his projects, life in general, and his full schedule, including music and the many opportunities he has to do what he desires most. With the re-release of “No. 2 Live Dinner” in vinyl as a pre-cursor to his Christmas show, interest in what this Lone Star State domestic product becomes involved in has piqued. He participated in the “Hand-in-Hand” benefit which aired in simulcast throughout America in the fall of 2017 and raised $14 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in Texas. He also laid the plans for this healthy 2018 touring schedule with Lyle Lovett, which has become a sold-out show, and in early February of this year, the pair made an appearance with George Strait at his popular concert series in Las Vegas.

Robert Earl Keen: Pioneer, Living Legend, and Texas Music Inspiration

Photo: Robert Earl Keen/TKO Publicity | Marketing

All that being said (and done), his involvement with the Hill Country Youth Orchestra for the 11th year running was first and foremost on his mind and in his heart at the time of our interview. The event was scheduled to take place on February 24 in Kerrville, in the Texas Hill Country, and over the years, it has come to be known as a forerunner in terms of fundraising for child involvement in music in the state. Raising close to $800,000 over its years of benevolence, Keen’s event for the Hill Country Youth Orchestras assists them to provide kids the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument and gives them the opportunity to become part of a symphony. Hill Country Youth Orchestras (HYCO) operates throughout the Texas school year and presently works with 140 children (when REK started with this project, there were 80.) It’s the only tuition-free youth orchestra program, and according to Keen, as well as those that participate, it can truly boast of great teachers and a fantastic curriculum.

Robert Earl Keen: Pioneer, Living Legend, and Texas Music Inspiration

Photo: Facebook/Robert Earl Keen

Keen’s one-night-only concert event for the HCYO in February was held at the Cailloux Theater in Kerrville and featured none other than bluegrass and country music legend Ricky Skaggs. 100 percent of the proceeds from ticket sales went to the HCYO Scholarship and Endowment Fund which provides school-aged children in Texas (from Kindergarten through high school) the opportunity to participate in its programming. Keen and Skaggs together were a force to be reckoned with, having numerous albums under their belts, industry awards and accolades, and continuing to perform at shows that fans consistently clamor for tickets to (such as this). Keen’s pride in discussing this event during our interview was clear to hear, and with great reason. The program continues to be imitated in many states, however, Texas is the only one in which it’s 100 percent free, thanks to efforts such as this as well as great benefactors.

 

Robert Earl Keen: Pioneer, Living Legend, and Texas Music Inspiration

Photo: Robert Earl Keen/TKO Publicity | Marketing

With respect to his own musical goals, Keen noted that 2018 is the year in which he has some space. Identifying that although his touring schedule is considerable (he’s on the road at least half of the year), he noted that he’ll spend the rest of his time like everyone else…fixing the house, being with family, and checking things off of his list of to-dos. But, his fans will also be happy to hear that some of the free space he’s allowing himself is earmarked for recording new songs and putting another record out – something that hasn’t happened since 2015, with “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.” This, together with his efforts to focus on family life, take the opportunities he’s been given, and give back through his music makes REK the kind of artist his fans remain both committed to and inspired by.