Robert Earl Keen and ‘Merry Christmas from the Family’

How the famous song turned into a Christmas jamboree.

By Leah ScarpelliDecember 23, 2016 9:30 am|

Tamales, fruit cakes, barbed wire wreaths, excessive lighting – certain holiday traditions distinguish Texans from the rest of the nation. Don’t forget certain holiday anthems, like Robert Earl Keen‘s “Merry Christmas from the Family”.

Keen is considered by many to have a special place in the pantheon of Texas singer-songwriters. Though truth be known, his mother always hated the Christmas song he’s known for.

It’s a song that has led to another tradition in Texas: Keen’s annual Christmas concerts. Robert Earl Keen’s Merry Christmas From The Fam-O-Lee is crisscrossing the Lone Star State this season and he stepped into the Standard’s studio to talk about it.

On planning the show:

“Just about the time that I start thinking ‘Well, I’m decompressing from all the Christmas shows that we did last year, it’s time to start working on the ones this year. … We start in July talking and putting together different set pieces.”

On writing “Merry Christmas from the Family”:

“I just wrote this just to amuse myself when I was working on another record a while back. And I kind of hit the wall … and I thought ‘You know, it was about this time of year.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I grew up in Houston, Texas. There’s nothing really that really reflects growing up in Houston, Texas and Christmas there.”

On his favorite Christmas story:

“My sister had a friend who had a prosthetic leg and she caught it on fire. And she was trying to get it out and she threw it in to the tree and the tree caught on fire – and then the whole living room was smoking. Then my dad goes ‘Somebody put that fire out!’ And it was like nothing happened, like ‘Get me another drink.'”

On how the Christmas show got started:

“After I wrote the song and the song got popular, people would hire us a lot in December. I started making this joke that I was like the Jimmy Buffett of December. And people would come to our shows and they would sit there with their arms folded. I realized after a few years of playing they weren’t just really there to see me play all my other stuff. … They were there to see this Christmas song. And as soon as I’d play that everybody would jump up and down then become animated. So I thought ‘Well, I can’t just keep doing this, I gotta do something else.’

“First we started wearing costumes and augmenting the set, and then we started doing some thesmes. … And we just kept building it up and building it up.”