Now three-decades on from the release of his debut album - with eighteen other records to his name, thousands of shows under his belt and still no end in sight to the road ahead - Keen remains as committed to and inspired by his muse as ever. And as for accruing recognition, well, he's done alright on that front, too; from his humble beginnings on the Texas folk scene, he's blazed a peer, critic, and fan-lauded trail that's earned him living-legend (not to mention pioneer) status in the Americana music world. And though the Houston native has never worn his Texas heart on his sleeve, he's long been regarded as one of the Lone Star State's finest (not to mention top-drawing) true singer-songwriters. He was still a relative unknown in 1989 when his third studio album, West Textures, was released - especially on the triple bill he shared at the time touring with legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark - but once fellow Texas icon Joe Ely recorded both "The Road Goes on Forever" and "Whenever Kindness Fails" on his 1993 album, Love and Danger, the secret was out on Keen's credentials as a songwriter's songwriter. By the end of the decade, Keen was a veritable household name in Texas, headlining a millennial New Year's Eve celebration in Austin that drew an estimated 200,000 people. A dozen years later, he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame along with the late, great Van Zandt and his longtime friend from Texas A & M, Lyle Lovett.
Keen himself had already started to make quite a name for himself on that scene, thanks to four years of constant regional gigging and winning the Kerrville Folk Festival's prestigious New Folk songwriting competition in 1983. After his debut's release, he began touring more and more outside of the state lines, eventually moving to Nashville in 1986. Keen's stint in Music City, U.S.A., lasted just under two years, but he returned to Texas armed with a publishing deal, a new label (another indie, Sugar Hill), and a national booking agent. He closed the decade with 1988's The Live Album and the following year's West Textures, the album that marked the debut of "The Road Goes on Forever" and, not inconsequently, kicked his career into high gear.
The '90s may have been a boom period for Keen, but his momentum hasn't ebbed a bit since the turn of the century - nor has his pursuit of continued growth as a writer and artist. If anything, his output from the last decade has been marked by some of the most adventurous music of his career. "Wild Wind," an unforgettable highlight from Gravitational Forces, his Gurf Morlix-produced 2001 debut for the Nashville-based Americana label Lost Highway, captured the character (and characters) of a small Texas town with a cinematic eye reminiscent of The Last Picture Show; but the album's title track also found Keen wryly experimenting with spacey, beatnik jazz. For the freewheelin', freak-flag-flying Farm Fresh Onions (2003, Audium/Koch), Keen and producer Rich Brotherton (his longtime guitarist) took the band into the proverbial garage to knock out their most rocking set of songs to date - most notably the psychedelic rave-up of the title track. Brotherton also produced the more rootsy but equally playful What I Really Mean (2005, E1 Music), but Lloyd Maines was back at the helm for 2009's eclectic The Rose Hotel and 2011's spirited Ready for Confetti (both released by Lost Highway). The later was especially well received by fans and critics alike, with AllMusic's Thom Jurek raving, "Ready for Confetti is, without question, Keen's most inspired and focused project in nearly 20 years." His latest project released in 2015, "Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions" was a straight -ahead "love postcard to bluegrass". This was something Keen had wanted to do for a long time and it was now or never. Keen is ranked Billboard's No. 2, 2015 Bluegrass Artist of the year. His current recording, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, charted as 2015's Top 5 album at Americana Radio and Billboard's 2015 No. 2 album on the Bluegrass Albums chart.
Earlier this year, Keen played three weeks of sold-out theater dates with Lyle Lovett, just two longtime college friends swapping songs on acoustic guitars like they used to do on Keen's front porch in College Station. But the lion's share of his concert schedule still finds him playing full-tilt with his seasoned road and studio band: Brotherton on guitar, Bill Whitbeck on bass, Tom Van Schaik on drums, and Marty Muse on steel guitar. "I've been with this band for 20 years now," Keen says proudly. "I used to think that was just sort of an interesting fact, but now it's almost a total anomaly - that just doesn't happen much. I always felt like once you lock into the right bunch of people, you try to do the best by them that you can. So we've been able to stay together a long time, and I think one thing that makes it worthwhile for people to come see us as an act is the fact that it's not like we're trying to work it all out onstage - we've already worked everything out."
But the road goes on and on, with no time for resting on laurels. Not that Keen's complaining. "I had a relatively open schedule for 2016 back at the beginning of the year, but it has just filled in like you wouldn't believe," he marvels during a rare day off in Kerrville, Texas (where he lives with his wife and two daughters). "I've broke my record this year - I've packed for five trips at one time, because I wasn't going to be starting any of them in the same place. It's been crazy!