"Cooking goes hand-in-hand with being a performer—you want people to enjoy what you're doing," Robert Earl Keen observes. "I've cooked all my life. Some of what gives me the most pleasure these days is cooking."
Keen is lucky, then, to have met with success both as a musician and, more recently, for his culinary achievements. Since his major-label debut more than 30 years ago, the Texas-bred singer-songwriter has enjoyed an enthusiastic following. Even without a lot of chart-topping singles, fans have appreciated his novelistic storytelling that taps into a modern approach to Western-style music. Starting in the 1980s, Keen—along with his friend Lyle Lovett and a handful of other musicians—pioneered the Americana genre that bridges the divide between roots, country, and bluegrass. Music has proven to be an excellent vocation.
But the laconic musician has always set his own tempo. A prolific recording artist (19 studio, live, and compilation albums since 1984) and live-performance act (he's currently taking a breather from touring in support of his 2015 album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions), the 59-year-old Keen remains a bit detached from the industry, living with his family on a ranch in Kerrville, a small town in the Texas Hill Country about a hour's drive northwest of San Antonio. And when he's home, he thinks less about music than he does his other passion: cooking.
"I'm really good at venison chili," he says. "With chili, you need to spend a lot of time—more than most people want to put in. I like to cook stuff people like … just as long as you stay out of my kitchen."
That spirit of Texas individualism no doubt contributed to Keen launching his own Bloody Mary mix, based on his own recipe.
Robert Earl Keen's Yardbird Bloody Mary Mix was released about two years ago, reportedly the only dry mix for the classic hangover cure, brunch staple, and refreshing summer cocktail. How did Keen come up with it? There's a tale there in the telling.
While cooking has been his relaxation, there is a confluence of food and music that's apparent from Keen's output. One of the first songs he wrote, with Lovett, was "This Old Porch," which talks about "greasy enchilada / with lots of cheese and onions and a guacamole salad." He's written ballads to barbecue, as well. But one of his most famous songs—the rollickingly comic "Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee," about a disastrous holiday get-together—includes the lyric: "Make Bloody Marys cuz we all want one / send somebody to the Stop 'n Go / we need some celery … a bag of lemons." And for some reason, that caught fire with Keen's fans.
"There is a hit-quality to songs and everyone likes them the same—from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon—and it really, really works," he says. The Bloody Mary line became an unplanned catchphrase. Ever the entrepreneur, the Keen started marketing T-shirts with a Bloody Mary on it. "We sold tons of those," he says.
Keen was already a lover of Bloody Marys and decided his association with the drink presented an opportunity to come up with his own recipe to share with others.
"We started talking about making some kind of [mix], but I said, 'I am not gonna carry bottles of tomato juice around with me.' Which is how we came up with this dry mix," he says.
It didn't happen overnight. "We started using Texas spices as much as possible—boxes of them—and putting them together," he says. "We'd also use some hibiscus flower and some natural flavoring, like ancho chile, and then have these taste tests. Then it became a trick to figure out how they all wouldn't sink to the bottom. We really needed an emulsion—I really don't remember how we solved that problem, but we did."
"He could probably do just as well as a chef as he is a recording artist," offers Cindy Howell, Keen's management director. "Robert tends to zag when everybody else is zigging. He's an ideas guy, and this was definitely his idea. We would play with the different dry spices in the mix until we had a little scale, so we had precise measurement. He'd taste a batch and say, 'It needs this or that—can you get it in a dry form?' Then he'd go back on the road."
In addition to his other talents, Keen would appear to have an attuned and sophisticated palate. He demurs.
"My wife will fix something and say, 'Go ahead and change it the way you want to!' … I have a pretty good idea what I want. But you have to be aware of the 'crisis point,' where you put in too much of something and can't fix it. You can't back away from a lot of stuff—you get too much in there, and you have to say, 'Yeah, we'll make this a side dish.'"
Working out the Bloody Mary recipe also led to another Texas favorite with Keen's imprimatur: A craft beer produced by Fredericksburg-based Pedernales Brewing, which distributed its first batch in 2012.
"Two or three years ago, we were in the throes of working on the Bloody Mary mix when we threw this big free party to launch my new website," Keen says. "Lee Hereford [founder of Pedernales] came to the party. We started talking when he said, 'Why don't we make a Robert Earl Keen beer?' We laughed; there are wines named after people, but not beers, unless you count Sam Adams. But then we started thinking, Maybe so. I think they thought I wanted one of these big IPAs. I surprised them and said, 'I love that Austrian style—beautiful, bubbly in a tall glass that looks like a golden volcano bubbling up from the middle of the Earth.' I spent a couple days [and the brewery with their brewmaster] trying to recreate to as close as what I could remember was that really clean, crisp taste of a Pilsner."
The result was the Robert Earl Keen Honey Pils, now one of Pedernales' signature brews.
But back to the Bloody Mary mix: What makes the perfect blend? "I think the ratio has to do with sweet and spicy; that's what we were looking for. Ot has to have a lot of tang but be backed up with the ahhhh. The perfect balance," he says.
His own recipe for the ideal Bloody Mary—aside from his proprietary mix—is pretty classic: A celery stick with the leafy top for stirring; he loves olives but can forgo them; and "Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee" suggests lemons are essential. But he can get damned specific.
"If you're using, say, a standard 12-oz. glass, use round ice—those one-and-a-half-inch by one-and-a-half-inch … maybe five of those."
For tomato juice? "Just the canned stuff," he shrugs. "What I want is a bland tomato juice that doesn't detract from the flavors."
And the vodka? "Man, I tell you, this is old school but I really like Stoli," he says.
Wait: Stolichnaya, the premiere Russian vodka, and not the spirit from his friend and fellow native son Tito's?
"I like his, too, but I like Stoli better. Sorry, Tito."
The Yardbird mix and beer aren't Keen's only forays into the development of adult beverages. He also lays claim to some other attempts at drinks, like The Gatorita. "That's when you take what you have left in your Gatorade bottle, add whatever tequila you have, and use sand or dirt around the rim as a salt substitute," he tells me.
And then there's the Instant Astronaut. "That's just Tang and vodka—no need for water."
"Those were failures," Keen admits with a wink.
If there's one thing the music business has taught him, it's that they can't all be hits.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in August, 2015.