Twenty-one years ago, Robert Earl Keen rolled into Floore’s Country Store, the venerable Texas honky tonk, with something to prove. With four solo albums under his belt, Keen was rapidly becoming one of country’s top troubadours. His 1995 show at Floore’s would be documented as No. 2 LIVE Dinner, a loose and raw album that became Keen’s best selling record, as well as cemented him as a top Americana concert draw. Keen has returned to Floore’s throughout the years, most recently in 2015, when he played a show for 5,000 rabid fans with guest appearances from Joe Ely, Bruce Robison, Cody Canada of Cross Canadian Ragweed and The Departed, as well as long-time friend Lyle Lovett, who sings “This Old Porch,” the first song he and Keen wrote together during their early days at Texas A&M. The show makes up the Live Dinner Reunion album, a twentieth anniversary career bookend that showcases Keen’s prowess as a freewheeling live performer.
Live Dinner Reunion comes out November 18 and Garden & Gun is thrilled to premiere the album’s first two tracks, “Cody Canada Tells It Like It Is” and Keen’s classic “Feelin’ Good Again.” Below, Keen talks about that night at Floore’s, his current acoustic tour with Lovett, and his upcoming annual Christmas show.
(The album is available now for pre-order.)
The 5,000 people in the audience must have been well lubricated, it sounds like 20,000!
It’s such a great venue; I was really floating on clouds after it happened. Originally, I just wanted to archive the show, but I ended up listening to it over and over again. At first I thought I didn’t want to do [a live album] again, but then there was enough a difference with the song choices as well as having some guests. If I could change anything, I wouldn’t talk as much. It sounds like I was hollering most of the time. The rest of it was well done, the band played great—just an amazing night.
What’s the backstory on “Feelin Good Again?”
I wrote that in Tyler, Texas, I think. I was sitting on the bus, feeling funky while everyone else was going to dinner. I was thinking about how much I wanted to go back to Bandera, where I was living at the time. The song just kind of came out of me. The irony of it was that the next day I got the flu and I was sick for a month. It’s been a real sleeper of a song for me and over the years, it’s the one that people write me letters about, saying how it helped them overcome hardships. It’s special in that way.
Did you go to a lot of dance halls when you were growing up?
My earliest memories of music were going to dance halls. I was living in Houston, but when I was four years old, my parents bought a place about 70 miles northwest of town. That area is all German-Czech decent, so they had serious traditional Friday and Saturday polkas and waltzes. In high school, instead of going to the football game, we’d drive to one, say, in Columbus, found out it sucked, then go to one in La Grange. If that [one] wasn’t happening, we’d keep driving 20 miles and 30 miles away until we’d find the one that was.
What’s special about Floore’s?
Floore’s was more out west. They had more country early on and western swing. Everybody shows up on Friday and Saturday nights, drinks beer and gets into fights. But they were very rigid on who was playing; it was only western swing and the odd country act, which included Willie Nelson. I finally got us a show on Sunday night which was the family friendly night [laughs].
You’re on a tour with Lyle Lovett where you both play acoustic and swap stories. Do you pow-wow before the show on what songs to play?
No way. We just sit on the bus talking about whatever—the beach or some hardware store he was in. Someone comes to get us and we stand in the wings for a minute and walk on stage. The set list is always different. Sometimes he’ll play a song I haven’t heard in a long time and I’ll have to one-up him. We get competitive!
You do an annual Christmas tour, what’s on tap for this year?
It’s going to be called Family Country Gold Jamboree, so we’ll shine up the set. Everyone picks an iconic Christmas song and sings it. It’s a celebration of Christmas, but we’ll do our show and spark it up a bit. The band does a great job of picking songs and everybody in my band is a performer at heart. It’s easy.