The Varsity Theatre is one of Robert Earl Keen’s favorite stops. Playing some 120 shows annually for the past 20 years, the Texas singer-songwriter has played the Highland Road music venue more than a dozen times.
Keen’s other regular stops include the long-running Birchmire in Alexandria, Virginia, and The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.
“There’s a handful of them that we go to (repeatedly),” Keen said from his home in Kerrville. “I like to move around, but you find good places where people seem to be happy. Particularly The Varsity. The staff’s always super nice to us, so it’s a good fit.”
In Louisiana, Keen also plays New Orleans venues House of Blues and Tipitina’s. And last year he appeared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“I love New Orleans, but the gig there is different from Baton Rouge,” he said. “The Varsity, you get a lot of people who have seen us over the years and keep coming back. New Orleans is like playing New York or Los Angeles. It’s such a tourist place that you almost never get the same crowd. People get there, open up the paper, see your name, come see you.”
Keen’s current show features a mix of the songs his fans expect from him plus material from his 18th album, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.” Released last month, “Happy Prisoner” includes Keen’s renditions of songs by bluegrass greats Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Carter Stanley (of the Stanley Brothers), country music pioneers A.P. Carter and Jimmy Rodgers and contemporary British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson.
Keen wanted to record a bluegrass-oriented album for years.
“One day I woke and said, ‘I gotta do this record, or else I’ll never do it,’ ” he said. “I didn’t have any obligations. I didn’t have any money either. I called my friend, Lloyd Maines. I said, ‘Can you do bluegrass for free?’ He said, ‘I’ve never done one, but, yeah, sure.’ We just got started. I wrote down a hundred songs that I liked, bluegrass songs or related to bluegrass music. We pared them down to 15 for the CD.”
In order to finally do his bluegrass album, Keen had to get over being intimidated by the iconic songs he was about to record.
“I don’t consider myself a great singer,” he recalled. “I never consider myself a bluegrass performer, although I love bluegrass. That had always stopped me, but I stepped across that line, and said, ‘I’m doing this.’ And I never thought about it again. I just got up there and sang them like I would sing my own songs.
“To my surprise, and a lot of people’s surprise, the songs worked much better than we thought they would. Every good idea I’ve ever had in music has been from me just wanting to archive something. The bluegrass thing was the same way. I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”
The Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Houston native Keen in 2012. Initially, he didn’t know much about the organization. Keen didn’t take the honor seriously until the night of the event.
“Truly, my plan was to drive my car, park it, put a quarter in the meter, give my speech and haul ass,” he said.
But then Keen showed up for a sold-out show attended by 2,500 people. Scalpers were in the parking lot. The evening featured a massive Townes Van Zandt tribute and Keen performed with one of his famous peers, Lyle Lovett.
“So, after I got over my fear, I had a really great time.”