Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen

"The road goes on forever..."

It's not always easy to sum up a career -- let alone a life's ambition -- so succinctly, but those five words from Robert Earl Keen's calling-card anthem just about do it.

You can complete the lyric with the next five words -- the ones routinely shouted back at Keen by thousands of fans a night ("and the party never ends!") -- just to punctuate the point with a flourish, but it's the part about the journey that gets right to the heart of what makes Keen tick. Some people take up a life of playing music with the goal of someday reaching a destination of fame and fortune; but from the get-go, Keen just wanted to write and sing his own songs, and to keep writing and singing them for as long as possible.

"I always thought that I wanted to play music, and I always knew that you had to get some recognition in order to continue to play music," Keen says. "But I never thought of it in terms of getting to be a big star. I thought of it in terms of having a really, really good career and writing some good songs, and getting onstage and having a really good time."

Now three-decades on from the release of his debut album -- with nineteen records to his name, thousands of shows under his belt and still no end in sight to the road ahead -- Keen remains as committed to and inspired by his muse as ever. And as for accruing recognition, well, he's done alright on that front, too; from his humble beginnings on the Texas folk scene, he's blazed a peer, critic, and fan-lauded trail that's earned him living-legend (not to mention pioneer) status in the Americana music world. And though the Houston native has never worn his Texas heart on his sleeve, he's long been regarded as one of the Lone Star State's finest (not to mention top-drawing) true singer-songwriters. He was still a relative unknown in 1989 when his third studio album, West Textures, was released -- especially on the triple bill he shared at the time touring with legends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark -- but once fellow Texas icon Joe Ely recorded both "The Road Goes on Forever" and "Whenever Kindness Fails" on his 1993 album, Love and Danger, the secret was out on Keen's credentials as a songwriter's songwriter. By the end of the decade, Keen was a veritable household name in Texas, headlining a millennial New Year's Eve celebration in Austin that drew an estimated 200,000 people. A dozen years later, he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame along with the late, great Van Zandt and his longtime friend from Texas A & M, Lyle Lovett.

Waylon Payne

"I'm back from the grave," Waylon Payne sings on his extraordinary new album The Prodigal. For most folks, that sort of sentiment is hyperbole, but in Payne's case, it's an understatement. Produced by Frank Liddell and Eric Masse (Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert), the record marks Payne's first release in 15 years, and it offers an unflinching account of his journey to the brink and back, chronicling addiction, heartbreak, estrangement, and more hard times than any one man could reasonably be expected to survive.

While the last few years of Payne's life have been without a doubt the most productive -- recent credits include co-writes with Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, and Ashley Monroe to rattle off just a few -- you need to go all the way back to the beginning to understand just how unlikely a new Waylon Payne record is. Born in 1972 to Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne and GRAMMY-winning country singer Sammi Smith, Payne was raised primarily in the strict Baptist home of his aunt and uncle. His youth was a difficult one on a number of fronts, but it was his sexual orientation that proved to be the breaking point, and by the age of 18, he was expelled from college, disowned by his family, and homeless. After stints working day jobs in Dallas and San Antonio, he relocated to Nashville to pursue his musical ambitions, performing in the honkytonks on Broadway six or seven nights a week until he landed a gig playing guitar and singing on the road with Shelby Lynne. Lynne helped Payne develop as a writer, and in the early 2000's, he scored a major label deal for his debut solo album, 'The Drifter.' The record's release should have been a triumphant moment for Payne -- he had moved to Hollywood by that point and even talked his way into playing Jerry Lee Lewis in the acclaimed Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line­ -- but instead it marked a drastic escalation of his decades-long freefall. The low-grade meth his father had introduced him to in his younger years had given way to harder stuff, and Payne watched his life spin hopelessly out of control as he put an astonishing amount of drugs into his veins.

Hitting rock bottom and getting clean proved to be an excruciatingly difficult journey, but it forced Payne to take stock of his experiences and process the trauma he'd been bottling up since his youth. The result is a spellbinding story of redemption and reconciliation, an album that's equally heartbreaking and uplifting as it celebrates the bittersweet beauty of survival. Gritty and resolute, the songs are country in the most classic sense of the word: honest, unvarnished, real. They're the work of one of Nashville's most gifted writers and performers, passionately delivered by a voice many presumed we'd never hear from again, a voice long thought to be swallowed up in a tsunami of reckless self-destruction. It all might sound like a happy ending, but for Waylon Payne, it's more like a new beginning.

"There comes a time when a man's got to stand on his own," he concludes. "For me, that time has come."

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