I had Robert Earl Keen all wrong. Until a few years ago, (thanks to a good buddy who occasionally gets recommendations right), I thought REK was a simpleton. I basically just knew “Road goes on forever..” and thought he was a shallow singer paving the way for hacks like Kenny Chesney or Luke Bryan. I’m still atoning for such a poor take and impression. Forgive me. I’ve since figured out how great of a storyteller and how soulful of an artist he is.
Among my favorites from Keen is a seasonal song that isn’t seasonal at all. “Merry Christmas From the Family” (Any version is great, but Keen is always at his best, live) is a gem that can be enjoyed year round. Since when did family dysfunction and a motley crew coming together limit itself in relatability? The story is an ultimate fly on the wall experience, so let’s gear up in our ugly sweater (we’d fit right in) and take a stroll through this gem of an evening.
Lyrics in bold from: Merry Christmas From The Family
Songwriters: Robert Keen Merry Christmas From The Family lyrics © BMG Rights Management
Mom got drunk and dad got drunk / At our Christmas party / We were drinking champagne punch / And homemade eggnog
And we’re off and running. All of this is normal in this home. There’s no surprise in Keen’s voice, and it just sets the table for the rest of the night. I guess my parents just aren’t this fun. Or not this pathetic. Either way, we know early on that we’re either having a great time or will at least have some entertaining people watching in front of us. At social functions, I prefer to choose one drink and just stick with that for the night, but I have a feeling this crowd doesn’t discriminate nor think twice as long as their Solo cup is filled with something cloudy.
Little sister brought her new boyfriend / He was a Mexican / We didn’t know what to think of him ’til he sang
Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad
Hopefully some tunes are cranking as sister and new boyfriend enter, and that quells some of the awkward exchanges he surely felt during introductions. I can see mom greeting him with some Michael Scott type love. We don’t learn this young man’s name. Not even a stereotypical Hispanic name. “His name was Jose” is a lot more personable than “He was a Mexican,” but the point is made; he’s an outsider, yet no hostility is felt. Speaking of outsiders, my dad, like many dads in Texas, has a gift for making the waiter and family cringe by over-enunciating “gracias!” and “de nada!” at Tex-Mex restaurants, regardless of the server’s ethnicity. I can see this poor guy reading the room, feeling that same sort of chintzy energy, and thinking a beloved “native” Christmas song may be just what he needs to break through, and he just goes for it. Good for him, because he nailed it. Also, shoutout to little sister for not caring what her Hellman’s mayonnaise white family surely thought about her dating a Mexican.
Brother Ken brought his kids with him / The three from his first wife Lynn / And the two identical twins / From his second wife, Mary Nell / Of course he brought his new wife Kay / Who talks all about AA / Chain smoking while the stereo plays / “Noel, Noel / The first Noel”
Brother Ken has five children from two different women. He’s divorced. Scratch that; he’s twice divorced. His third wife is a recovering alcoholic who smokes like a chimney. Brother Ken is totally beaten down by life. He’s jumping at every chance he gets to take out the trash, sneak away for a smoke (Affleck-style misery filled) or anything that just gives him a second to breathe. Kay sounds like a total wreck, but at least she makes me feel better about myself.
Carve the turkey / Turn the ball game on / Mix margaritas when the eggnog’s gone / Send somebody to the Quickpak store / We need some ice and an extension cord / A can of bean dip and some diet rites / A box of tampons and some Marlboro Lights
How much egg nog are these people drinking? It’s a terrible beverage, but this crowd doesn’t discriminate against alcohol. We’re up to three family sized casks of booze and counting. And who’s making this critical run to the store? Brother Ken is the heavy favorite and is tripping over gifts on his way to grab his keys. The Mexican would love to get out, but he doesn’t have the conviction to speak up yet. And I’d like to know why an extension cord and bean dip are as pressing of needs as a tampon.
Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen / I can’t remember how I’m kin to them / But when they tried to plug their motor home in / They blew our Christmas lights
Harlingen is practically in Mexico. Fred and Rita likely made quite the pilgrimage across Texas in their home on wheels, only to be greeted by people who aren’t certain of why they’re here in the first place. Shortly after their lukewarm greeting, their dump of an RV nukes the festivities out front, but it at least gives us something to do. Tough start for Fred and Rita.
Cousin David knew just what went wrong / So we all waited out on our front lawn / He threw the breaker and the lights came on
Where the hell did this guy come from?
And we sang “Silent Night, ” “oh, silent night”
The power of song brings everyone together once again. First The Mexican saves himself with a Christmas classic, and now we have a Griswold-esque moment of harmony on the lawn, with merry spirits swaying to a hymn that can bring harmony to even the most dysfunctional of families.
Carve the turkey, turn the ball game on / Make Bloody Marys / ‘Cause we all want one!
I’m counting like eight adults here, and we’re already on our fourth different large serving of alcohol. “We all want one!” goes without being said, but they didn’t want to leave anything to chance here. And can someone please turn the damn game on already?
Send somebody to the stop ‘n go / We need some celery and a can of fake snow / A bag of lemons and some diet sprites / A box of tampons, some Salem Lights
We’re just begging for some sort of redneck 12 Days of Christmas to be performed. We’re up to our second convenience store visit, second box of tampons (I think Brother Ken intentionally forgot them the first time, to buy himself another trip later. Veteran move there), and our second type of cigarettes needed. More mixers and random household needs too, and things are really just going off the rails. We’re all having a good time though.
Hallelujah, everybody say “cheese” / Merry Christmas from the family / Feliz Navidaaad”
I’d love to have this Christmas card hanging from my fridge. The smiles are surely jolly; the eyes aren’t all looking at the camera, but this flawed family is having themselves a good time.
Thank you, Robert Earl Keen. I love this song. Like so many of his works, it has a great range and depth to it. I laugh at someone rushing out of a gas station with arms full of bean dip and tampons, and then in the next moment reflect on my love and appreciation for all the flaws and challenges within my own family. Here’s to hoping we can all find the same enjoyment and delight in our own families this holiday season. Feliz Navidadaaad.