On The Road with Robert Earl Keen

October 20th, 2009  |  Published in Front Page, Music, Noteworthy, Stories & Projects  |  4 Comments

The slide show below is the product of three days spent on tour photographing Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen on assignment for Texas Highways magazine. Shot in December 2008, it was a rewarding chance to spend some time with one of Texas’ legendary musicians and his band, a long-standing, tight knit cast of artists who were willing to give me the chance to peer into and document their lives on the road, and their dedication and devotion to their craft. But the assignment was more of a culmination than anything else; the groundwork of my interest had been laid much earlier that year. Read on below for more…

Robert Earl Keen and the Robert Earl Keen Band, Gruene Hall, New Braufels, Texas, February 2008.

Robert Earl Keen and the Robert Earl Keen Band, Gruene Hall, New Braunfels, Texas, February 2008.

I guess the picture to the left is what started the ball rolling, so to speak. It was shot at Gruene Hall, a rickety, crumbling, one-of-a-kind dance hall in the truest Texan sense of the term, with a little point-and-shoot camera one February night as some friends and I took in a Robert Earl Keen show. It’s probably not much to look at but for some reason I recall getting home very late that night and immediately wanting to download this picture and see it on the screen. And I remember getting up the next morning, wanting to do nothing more than get it processed in the computer, working painstakingly to bring whatever I could out of this crappy, high-speed digital file to try and reflect the essence of the performance that I had seen the night before. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a kid developing Tri-X in the high school yearbook darkroom again–I thought I had…something! I knew it! And I couldn’t wait to see what it was. As I looked at the image the next morning, the portrait guy in me promised myself that some day, somehow, I was going to find a way to make a portrait of someone in this place.

Fast forward six months or so. Glossy magazine, an offshoot of the Austin American-Statesman, is doing a feature story on Texas musicians, one of whom is Robert Earl Keen. Would I be interested in shooting him, and did I have any ideas on how and where to shoot it? That picture, that show, that night popped into my head again. Did I ever.

Robert Earl Keen, New Braunfels, Texas, July 2008

Robert Earl Keen, New Braunfels, Texas, July 2008

A brief disclaimer: I really enjoy, and appreciate, Robert Earl Keen’s music. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s funny, and it’s deep. It’s It’s also bluesy, folksy and a little bit country, which means that it’s an acquired taste, especially for a born-and-bred New Yorker and child of the ’80s. But I don’t tell you that to try and convert or convince you; I tell you that to give you a little bit of my perspective on the shoot.

You see, I spend a good amount of time working for Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest. Which is to say that I spend a good deal of my photographic life shooting pictures of extremely talented people who can do other-worldly things with the gifts that have been bestowed on them–people who awe us on television with their abilities, and whom we in turn lionize (and sometimes, canonize) in our newspapers’ sports pages and the glossy spreads of our magazines’ feature wells. I must confess, however, that for someone who documents these people as they work and gets to meet and work with them in person, this is a bit of a letdown because, to be honest with you, a good many of them turn out to be assholes who couldn’t care less.

Yeah, disillusionment is pretty much included in my job description. And so it was with great trepidation that I waited in Gruene Hall one hot morning in July, having positioned the cameras, loaded film backs, and set the lights. I’d done this too many times and met too many people whose talent I genuinely admired, who I was truly looking forward to meeting, and who disgusted me in the end with their arrogance and attitude. I was prepared for the worst. Call me jaded, but I’ve just found that it’s the best way to ease any disappointment.

What a pleasant turn of events it was, then, to discover that the man who is so easygoing on stage, who spins yarns about his old college landlord and tells corny jokes and forgets lyrics as he finger-picks his way through his old, folksy classics, and laughs and jokes and jams with his band as they meander through a set-list that is written half an hour before each show and changes by the minute was…exactly like I imagined, and hoped, he would be. Easygoing. Serious. Cooperative. Thoughtful. Engaging.

In a word: Genuine. And that’s all you really need to know.

Robert Earl Keen, photographed at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas on Friday, July 11, 2008. Photograph © 2008 Darren Carroll (Darren Carroll)


  1. Rick Priest says:

    January 3rd, 2010at 9:44 am(#)

    Your lyrics are as good as your shots. The high school yearbook and point and shoot camera stuff is like you were pointing your lens right at me in a crowd. I too my friend have become hooked on the shutter thing. Always saying I purposely remain an amateur to insure the purity of my pix, is a lie. When I view fantastic pix like yours, I dream of professional equipment. With the equipment I can afford, the opportunity window is so much smaller. I visualize the shot, look at my equipment, and realize, “No way.” Then see a web site like this for the first time and reconfirm, “There is a way. You just don’t have it.” I MUST move on!

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    November 19th, 2010at 8:46 pm(#)

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