Originally published Feb. 14, 2013
The front porch is long gone.
That spot on Church Avenue where Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen met and forged a musical bond in the late 1970s as Texas A&M students now has a much more mundane existence.
"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," says Keen, quoting Joni Mitchell's classic Big Yellow Taxi to illustrate his point. "That completely encapsulates the whole thing."
But there are pleasant memories of that legendary porch, the song it inspired and the first steps of musical ambition for Keen (A&M Class of 1978), and Lovett (Class of '79). They will share some of those memories and music in a sold-out concert tonight at Rudder Auditorium.
It's the first time the singer-songwriters have performed together on campus since the Bonfire benefit concert in 2000. This time, they'll perform a stripped-down, acoustic show -- two old friends with more than 30 years of songs and stories.
"I'm just proud to be able to come back to College Station with Robert," Lovett says. "It's very exciting to come back to a place that's so special to me and to both of us. To be with him and to be there together."
A CHANCE MEETING
The Church house was on the northwest side of what is now the Northgate Promenade parking lot. Keen rented it from Jack Boyett -- a familiar family name around Bryan-College Station -- and their relationship was immortalized in Keen's live version of The Front Porch Song. In it, he reminisces about Boyett rolling up in his truck and yelling, "Robert Keen! Robert Keen! Can you come help me for a minute?" What would follow is a day filled with mowing lawns, moving furniture or other tasks at Boyett's ranch.
Back at the front porch, Keen would gather with his buddies, including fiddler Bryan Duckworth, to play bluegrass songs.
"We were a bunch of little rednecks," Keen recalls. "All my friends, they're dipping snuff, drinking coffee out of beer cans, and then drinking beer out of beer cans, and then drinking to drink. And we made some comment about everybody who walked or rode by while we were pickin' and grinnin.' And we were like, 'Who's that dude on that 10-speed?'"
That dude was Lovett, who would park his car as close to the A&M campus as possible, then ride his bike the rest of the way to class. The music billowing out of Keen's porch caught his attention, and he stopped to listen.
"He was really nice, really polite," Keen says. "And he had a huge Afro like they had on That '70s Show, because it was that '70s kind of time. And then he said, 'Hey, I can play a song.'"
Someone handed Lovett a guitar. Keen was instantly impressed.
"We were all like, 'Wow, this guy can really sing. He can really play a song,'" Keen recalls.
The two found themselves in similar classes during summer school. Keen was an English major, Lovett chose journalism. Lovett booked student performers for the Basement Coffee House on campus and invited Keen to play.
But the house on Church was the hub. Lovett says friends would stash their instruments at the house -- guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos -- and stop by between classes or whenever time allowed. That meant a revolving cast of aspiring musicians playing together at any given moment.
"What was remarkable about that place was the atmosphere of community that Robert and Duckworth created and allowed to happen," Lovett says. "They encouraged people to come by, and they made everybody feel at home. It was just a place where everybody hung out. In your youth, you don't always appreciate just how remarkable that is, and how unusual that sort of interaction is."
"It was a great time, there's no doubt about that," Keen says. "You go through great periods in your life, and that was one of the greatest for me. It was challenging in that I was going to school, and at the same time I was really enjoying learning how to play music."
THIS OLD PORCH
Some of the details of The Front Porch Song have grown fuzzy over the years. Keen recalls playing his early version of the song for Lovett and getting "the old arched-eyebrow kind of thing" in return. Lovett's memory: "I loved the song as soon as he played it for me."
What's certain is that Keen wrote the first three verses, comparing the front porch to a red-and-white Hereford bull and "a steaming, greasy plate of enchiladas."
Lovett added the last verse, turning the focus back on Keen and his relationship with Boyett, who died in 1993. Boyett "asserted his ownership" in ways some tenants didn't expect, Lovett says, like marching right into the house, saying, "Hey, Robert, I thought I'd use your phone."
"I just always admired Robert for his kindness toward this older gentleman," Lovett says, "and how Robert saw value in that relationship beyond just landlord-tenant."
Lovett captured that in the final verse, relating the porch to "a weathered, gray-haired, 70 years of Texas," and depicting Keen's helpful demeanor: "He always takes the rent late/So long as I run his cattle/He picks me up at dinnertime/And I listen to him rattle."
"So what you have, basically, is this metaphorical thing at the first," Keen says, "and then it kind of blends into a reality, personal experience. And that's really what he brought to it, which really makes the song work."
Both artists would later record the song. Keen's is upbeat, while Lovett's (called This Old Porch) has a subdued, contemplative approach. Lovett shot a video of the song and included clips of the LaSalle Hotel in Downtown Bryan, the source of those greasy enchiladas. Keen made his version a concert staple, with the memorable monologue in the middle about Boyett, the porch's bottomless supply of bluegrass and beer cans, and the unsuspecting audience members just getting out of the nearby church.
When they perform it together, they sing Lovett's version.
"His version lends better to more of the meditation way of thinking about it, if you want to sit there and listen and absorb the words," Keen says. "Mine is more of an attack on the audience. And so it's easier to work as a song to sing together in his format."
LONG-LASTING CAREERS AND FRIENDSHIPS
Keen and Lovett have had 30-year careers in music, which Keen notes is remarkable for an industry that "chews you up and spits you out." He is widely considered to be the godfather of Texas country, the earnest style that distances itself from the slick, empty-headed hits of Nashville. Lovett's sophisticated blend of country, blues, jazz and gospel has earned him four Grammys.
And both are accomplished songwriters. Keen excels in crafting adventurous stories with novel-like plots and observations. Lovett can turn a church scene or a grocery store conversation into a witty romp or a heartbreaking internal dialogue. Both load their songs with twists and turns the listener doesn't see coming.
"I admire his writing greatly," Lovett says of Keen, mentioning Merry Christmas From the Family and Rolling By among his favorite tracks. "Every time I hear one of Robert's new songs, I always think the same thing: 'Man, I wish I had written that.'
"I guess what's interesting to me in hearing his songs is I know him so well personally. It's rare that any of us get to really know the songwriters or artists that we admire. So I find it interesting to be able to connect the dots from what I know personally about Robert and see farther into his work. ... He's just a very insightful, thoughtful and perceptive person, and you get that from spending five minutes with him."
Keen calls Lovett a "fantastic songwriter," and singles out his tracks Here I Am and Good Intentions.
"He's kind of the jazz version of a lyricist," Keen says. "I know that his heart is somewhat bluesy-jazzy. ... His writing style and the stuff he does really well is almost this stream-of-consciousness jazz. One little word hooks to another word. They might not necessarily go together in a sentence, but they go together great in poetry or in music."
The two were honored for their songwriting in 2012. Both were inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Association Hall of Fame in Austin, where they traded songs and stories, just as they will tonight at Rudder Auditorium. And just like they did all those years ago on that front porch, after meeting through music.
"When I see how well Robert has done," Lovett says, "and I realize that getting to play music is what my life has turned into, there's a feeling of accomplishment. And a feeling that a lot of those long nights when we sat around playing songs -- and talking about how we might be able to do it -- were not just a way to pass the evening, but actually had some meaning. And that's a really good feeling."