By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Robert Earl Keen spends half of the year in Kerrville, Texas, in the hill country northwest of San Antonio. The other half of the year he’s a road warrior, playing 120-plus shows for devoted fans across the country.
Keen brings his legendary songwriting and high-energy country rock to the Big Sky Professional Bull Riders arena on Aug. 1, headlining a multi-act concert that will close out the three-day PBR festival.
Montana’s Two Bit Franks will open the Saturday night show and the Jamie McLean Band – fronted by the former Dirty Dozen Brass Band guitarist – will precede Keen’s performance.
Keen is touring this summer in support of his new album “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions,” which features 15 bluegrass standards and other favorite songs from his youth.
“Happy Prisoner” has spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart, and was the No. 3 best-selling bluegrass album in the country at EBS press time on July 8.
Keen said in a phone interview that Big Sky concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from the new album, as well as some of his classics like “The Road Goes on Forever.”
“I’ve loved bluegrass music since I was a child, but was so passionate about being a songwriter,” Keen said, noting why it took him so long to record this album. “Last summer about this time I woke up and said I had to do it.”
The reception for “Happy Prisoner” has been universally positive, he added, with both old fans and new praising the album, which includes tracks recorded with industry heavyweights Lyle Loveitt, Peter Rowan and Natalie Maines.
Keen’s backup band has expanded to six during this current tour, adding Kym Warner from The Greencards on mandolin and MilkDrive fiddler Brian Beken to fill out the retooled sound.
Keen has played concerts in Montana for more than 25 years, and the 59-year-old is no stranger to bulls.
“I love bull riding, I rode bulls in high school, [but] wasn’t any good at it – it takes some athletic ability,” Keen said with a sardonic laugh.
Keen has played everywhere from a Texas “cattle pit” to Washington D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and countless venues in between. Despite his relentless touring schedule, he says he keeps it fun by not taking himself too seriously – like the time 15 years ago he was playing a three-night stand at Houston’s Rockefeller Hall.
“On the third night I lost a screw or something,” Keen said. “I had this huge pile of press photos, taped them all together and made a suit out of them. [The photos] were of myself, so the joke was I was full of myself.”
Lightning hit an electric pole outside the venue and knocked out the power, so the band moved outside and Keen played to the crowded Houston street in a suit made from his own likeness.
Keen says his band doesn’t get much radio play and his devoted fan base has mostly grown by word of mouth.
“Anybody that’s a fan that’s never seen us play should come and see us [in Big Sky],” he said. “One of the reasons we’re so popular is we put on a great show.” And if you needed one more reason to see Robert Earl Keen along with the Jamie McLean Band and Two Bit Franks, the concert is also a fundraiser for local families.
Part of the proceeds from Saturday’s show will benefit the Big Sky Community Food Bank and continue the charitable tradition of the Big Sky PBR and its annual Calcutta auctions that raise money for local nonprofits.
“This is our big fundraising push for the summer,” said BSCFB Operations Manager Sarah Gaither. “The money that comes from this [donation] is going to keep our refrigerators and freezers running, and keep the doors [of the food bank] open.”
Gaither said the food bank served 700 households last year. During the offseason the food bank staff sees 40-50 people per week, and 20-30 people per week during the rest of the year when employment is more readily available in Big Sky.
The three-day Big Sky PBR will also feature free concerts on the VIA stage adjacent to the bull riding arena, on Thursday and Friday nights. Bozeman-based country rockers the Kris Clone Band will perform after the bull riding on July 30, and California’s Zoso – a hard-rocking Led Zeppelin tribute band – will close out the July 31 festivities.
Whether you’re a long-time Robert Earl Keen fan, or have never heard his music before, the Big Sky PBR offers an idyllic outdoor setting to see the hard-charging Texas musician.
Tickets are available for the Aug. 1 concert at bigskypbr.com, where you can also purchase admission for the Big Sky PBR bull riding events July 30 and 31, when bundled with concert tickets.