Ask a Robert Earl Keen fan to recite their favorite lyric from the prolific Americana artist’s repertoire, and there’s a good chance the answer would cause you to either mistake the man for a novelty act or a depressed folksinger.
In Keen’s prolific career, he has released some of the rowdiest anthems to hit country airwaves (think the modern day holiday classic “Merry Christmas from the Family”) as well as songs that call for a good bit of introspection.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when discussing his 2012 induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside two men who have helped define Texas songwriting – friend Lyle Lovett and the late Townes Van Zandt – Keen can’t help but get a little wry.
“I thought it was a real tribute – a real honor – to be included, because there is such a formidable list of singer-songwriters who come from the Lone Star State,” Keen says. “Did it change anything? I don’t think so. I just continue to play 120 to 130 shows a year, among the other things I do, like promoting my new music in every state around the country.”
He pauses before saying with a laugh, “It’s always nice to be validated, though.”
It isn’t a mistake that Keen, set to play at Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Friday, mentions that he handles much of his own promotion. Touring behind his latest release, the live album “Live Dinner Reunion,” Keen realized that there was only one person he could really trust to give his music the push he felt it deserved: himself.
“There was never a point when I was starting out where I would hand someone a job to do and didn’t think, ‘Hmm, I wonder if you’re really going to take care of this,’ ” Keen says. “And I could hear it in their voice, when they would tell you how important they thought the job of helping me was to them, and I’d know that it wasn’t really the truth. I’m not saying I’m some kind of ‘lonesome stranger’ riding around the world on my black horse or something, because I’m out there in the world making deals and working with other people, but I’m always in control of my own future when it comes to making records. . . . The main thing for me is to not worry about what other people are doing, and to just worry about the show that night, and the people coming to see me.”
For an artist with Keen’s catalogue of songs, it must be freeing to know that the flip side of not having a career with an album’s worth of chart toppers is that he never is expected to perform his greatest hits at every show – and a sizable number of his followers will instantly know by heart whatever deep cut he pulls out.
“There are a couple really great things about performing the way I do,” Keen says. “Number one, I can play anything I want to, and number two is that I’m not rebelling against anyone when I say that the record company is forcing me to play my hits; I play everything the way I feel. The thing is that I’m a true performer. I’m not just some guy who gets marched onstage and is forced to stand behind a microphone and sing. I am somebody that loves performing.
“The only man I’m playing for is the man you’re currently speaking to on the phone, because I am totally independent, and what that gives me is the opportunity to give the audience everything I’ve got.”
Who: Robert Earl Keen, with Jeanne Jolly
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham