Robert Earl Keen on bluegrass, Bonanza and a Black Mountain brush-off

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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Robert Earl Keen digs Black Mountain, but there was a time when the little whistle-stop wasn’t so sure about him.

He’d heard about the music-loving mountain burg from friends, so he packed up guitar and pulled into town for his gig. The show was set for a local watering hole – he’s not sure which, but he was eager back then. He told the barkeep his name.

“My name is Robert Earl Keen and I’m here to play music tonight,” the Texas troubadour reported.

Well that was just fine, said the bartender, but he needed the musician to multi-task: collect admission cash at the door, and have patrons deposit beer money in a can on the bar. Not many tickets had been sold, the barkeep said, and he had a date to get to.

“I got the brush-off,” right there in Black Mountain, Keen recalled.

It’s just the kind of story the award-winning songwriter has mastered in the years since that encounter; a working man’s tale, told straight, the humor in the honesty and the knowing that Keen went on to become one of the most notable songwriters of his generation. Keen’s expertise will be on full display Friday when he hits the stage at Pisgah Brewing for a show on the brewery’s meadow stage.

Keen has covered country, rock and folk over the course of recording 19 albums since the 1980s. A master storyteller in any genre, Keen says bluegrass is “a communal kind of music” that’s close to his heart. His latest – last year’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions – charted as 2015’s Top 5 album at Americana Radio, as well as Billboard’s 2015 No. 2 album on the Bluegrass Albums chart.

Lately, he’s been practicing what he calls writing “short songs for a short attention-span culture.”

“I’ve written a long time and with a lot of people. The general form for a song is verse-chorus,verse-chorus, verse-chorus. In that format, when you get to the second verse you’re having to work too hard and it becomes a little contrived a lot of times. So that first nugget of the song, that first verse,” can be the song, Keen says.

What’s the best subject matter? “For me, I find that it’s the things that amuse me the most that I do the best with,” he says. A prime example, Merry Christmas from the Family, was written as a goof, says Keen. He’d always wanted a Christmas song, but growing up in Houston, he says he knew nothing about chestnuts, or sleigh bells or snow.

But Keen wrote what he knew and played it for a friend, who liked it. Then he played it for a producer friend, who loved it.

For Keen, it’s always about the story. At a recent speech he delivered at a Texas museum, he had yet another. Keen’s topic was “on being a qualified voice of the West.” Keen ticked off a number of them, from dipping snuff to riding bulls and broncs. He also said that he never once missed an episode of Bonanza as a child.

“We didn’t to church much,” but Keens says he never missed the TV western, and most likely picked up a moral or two from Hoss and Little Joe.

Tickets here to Robert Earl Keen, who will play Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain on Friday, July 15. Tickets are $25.


Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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  1. Big Al July 16, 2016

    Your headline is misleading. It implies that the town of Black Mountain dissed Keen when it was really just one bar.

  2. Pisgah Brewing Company July 15, 2016

    We are super excited to welcome REK back to the outdoor stage this evening!! We might not even make him work the door this time…we’ll see. Y’all come on out! Tickets still available @


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