by Steve Wilson • Photography by Kate LeSueur
Robert Earl Keen has a technique for getting a cowboy hat to look just right. “Go in the shower, stick it under the water and just soak it to death,” he says as he stirs a steaming pot of fresh axis deer meat in the kitchen at his ranch in Kerrville. He doffs his replica of the hat Daniel Day Lewis wore in “There Will Be Blood” and stretches it this way and that. “Then, when it dries a little bit, re-crease it any way you want. If it’s good felt, it’ll hold.”
Keen’s pretty good at getting the simmering deer meat just right, too. Originally from India, axis deer is known for tasting a lot better than our native whitetail. “It’s closer to beef, but lean like venison,” he says. Keen likes to have his local wild-game processor fine-grind the meat, and he can’t stress this enough: “Leave it on the counter to get it at room temperature before cooking!” He gushes over the end result—a savory foundation for his chili that hits the sweet spot between spongy and hard. “It’s all consistent,” he says. “Like loose gravel.”
Comfortable in the kitchen, Keen might have strong opinions about chunky tomatoes over diced, wooden spoons over metal and staying ever-vigilant against the “crisis point” of too much pepper, but he’s still a songwriter at heart. The guy who packed an entire crime novel into five minutes and one second of “The Road Goes on Forever” can’t help spinning stories with each new addition to the pot. The simple act of adding cilantro gets him going about his greatest cooking failure: an over-prepared dish he dubbed “Chicken à la Keen.” Soon after chopping the onions, he’s off on a tangent about how he won on the radio show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and how Stewart Copeland of The Police didn’t. The brown sugar reminds him of a day on the ranch when he consumed 17 Big Reds and eight chili dogs. “The line between solitude and isolation got too blurry out here,” he says with a shudder.
There’s no special story behind the chili, though—just something he makes for his wife and two girls. But he has plenty of stories about them. Like the time his eldest daughter announced how a local restaurant has “excellent quinoa.” “Never say that again,” he advised her. Or how his 28-year marriage has had more crisis points than any pepper could ever reach. “My wife and I called the first twelve years ‘rounds,’” he says.
Right now, though, he’s too busy detailing the finer points of his chili philosophy (“Chili must have beans and that’s it!”) to get into other matters of his life—such as how this Houston native became the living embodiment of Americana music during its rise in the 1990s. Even so, he’s psyched to play his most recent album, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.” He has to blast it from his pickup’s speakers outside because nobody can figure out the stereo this morning. Straight-up covers of bluegrass standards, the album marks one of the rare times Keen has sung about drunks and other sad sacks he didn’t dream up himself. “I wanted to make a real bluegrass record,” he says. “The only thing out of place is my voice. I’m not a high lonesome singer.”
As his cover of “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” rolls into the kitchen full of lovingly mismatched pots, pans and knickknacks, Keen throws a couple of new ingredients into the chili: glugs from a can of Robert Earl Keen’s Honey Pils (produced by Pedernales Brewing Company) and a good dose of Keen’s own Yardbird Bloody Mary Mix, inspired by the biggest whoop-and-holler line in his song “Merry Christmas from the Family” (“It’s bloody marys ’cause we all want one!”). The mix has the kind of spices you’d want in chili, or in a meat rub or in a stiff morning cocktail, for that matter. As for the beer, he knows it has little real effect on the dish, but somehow, it just feels right. “Cowboy campfire voodoo,” he says with a shrug. Keen’s fans won’t need any explanation, though. In his chili, as in his music, THERE WILL BE BEER.