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Center Stage: An evening with ... Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen

October 18, 2018

TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER

Floorboards and flies listened back when young bucks Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen swapped songs on Keen’s porch. Students at Texas A&M University, they hadn’t a clue as to what lay ahead.

“I think the days of playing with Lyle on my porch were the biggest factor in me doing what I’ve done,” said Keen on Monday afternoon.

Lovett and Keen bring their “Evening With...” show to the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, on Friday.

“Playing with him on the stage, trading songs, it’s just like back then,” Keen, 62, said. “Friends on a stage doing what we love. That leads to some adventure.”

One’s Huck, one’s Tom. Lend an ear and hold on.

Keen visited Bristol and the Paramount three years ago. With a bluegrass album in tow, he performed a mostly bluegrass show in the venerable venue.

“I grew up on bluegrass and acoustic music,” Keen said. “I love it, and I feel like I’m somewhat locked into it. It’s cool. I would like people to see how cool it is. I always had a knack for writing little poems, songs and things, but I really started playing guitar behind a fiddle contest player. I started playing my first year in college, and these contest fiddle players showed me all of these chords and songs and set me up to love it.”

After Lovett and Keen graduated from Texas A&M, music snagged a larger role. Keen issued his first album, “No Kinda Dancer,” in 1984 and moved to Nashville two years later.

Lovett signed to Nashville’s MCA Records. They released his debut album in 1986, which yielded a top 10 single, “Cowboy Man.”

“I learned a lot of things from Lyle,” Keen said. “That’s where our friendship began, where we shared our mutual admiration for songwriting and songwriters. He was in journalism and I was an English major, and we could just kinda sit back and talk about songwriting. And all of a sudden all of our plans back then became real. Weird.”

Lovett and Keen’s show bears shades of when they traded licks and lyrics on the porch in college. Neither leaves the stage. Lovett may sing his own “Don’t Touch My Hat.” Keen could offer “The Road Goes On Forever.” Then again, they may swap those songs.

“We’ve been doing this sort of thing together for a while,” Keen said. “We take turns singing songs and talk in between. We strive to be entertaining. We chat a little about our friendship and what it was like growing up in the music industry.”

Then as now, Lovett and Keen are as different as Waylon and Willie. One’s tall of hair, the other fuzzy of beard. Each tell incredible tales.

“Our approach was really different right off that bat,” Keen said. “I played on my porch, Lyle booked a local coffee shop. He got us a real gig. You know, instead of playing in front of liquor stores or my favorite, which was the Methodist Wednesday night spaghetti supper where everybody was older than we are now. So we are different in a lot of approaches and what not. But it’s in a way that helps each other out.”

They’re complementary. Whereas Keen’s songs launch from a Texas folk singer’s storytelling pad, Lovett’s delve into an idiosyncratic stew wherein country swings with jazz and western swing touches spice it all.

Consequently, their music blows in as if saddled to a breeze. Refreshing.

“It has a similar feel (to our college days),” Keen said of their show. “We will start a conversation in the back or on the bus and we walk on the stage and, just keep the conversation going.”