Austin Legends: Robert Earl Keen

I have noticed in my year of living in Austin that there are certain artists who receive significantly different responses from Texans and non-Texans. Some artists are legends within Austin, or Texas as a whole, but haven’t made quite the same impact on the country as a whole. These artists can be intimidating for those of us who haven’t grown up with them because they are so revered – or at least well-known – to the natives, and no one takes the time to explain them to us. So I’d like to start an Austin Legends series that gives us newbies a starting point for some of the seminal figures of the Austin music scene. And with a new album having been released last week, the timing is right for a profile on the one and only Robert Earl Keen.

No. 2 Live Dinner
This is the album you need to hear to introduce you to Robert Earl Keen’s greatness. This is a seminal work in the subgenre of Texas Country to say nothing of REK’s oeuvre. Keen is an incredible showman – by the sounds of his live albums. By and large, his live work far outstrips his studio efforts, and this album doesn’t disappoint with its rambling but riveting prologues to “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Mariano.” It’s not just Keen himself that makes this an important album; his band stretches out and energizes tracks like “Five Pound Bass” and “Rolling By.” Keen’s staple, his “Stairway to Heaven” or “Freebird” is “The Road Goes On Forever”, which by the time this album was recorded in 1996 in Austin had already been covered by luminaries like Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, and the Highwaymen, among others. But this live version far outdoes the original on 1989’s West Textures. It’s an epic song both lyrically and musically, and embodies many tropes of country music.

But there are so many highlights here: “Merry Christmas From the Family” depicts the most delightfully dysfunctional family Christmas ever with humor and great detail (all three of Brother Ken’s wives are called out by name). It’s from 1994’s Gringo Honeymoon, whose title track is given its definitive version here as well. What could come off sounding like a sappy Baby Boomer indulgence mixes sweetness and levity with a great chorus to produce a beautiful song. In fact, many of the Gringo Honeymoon tracks, like “I’m Coming Home” and “Dreadful Selfish Crime” sound simultaneously fresh and timeless. Throughout, this is a master class in Texas country, and if you don’t like this album, you just shouldn’t even bother with the genre.

Other career highlights:

No Kinda Dancer
This gorgeous waltz is, on the surface, about a woman teaching a man how to dance. But the gorgeous melody, fingerpicked guitar backing, and three piece horn section are the foundation for lyrics that flirt with salvation and redemption. This song is clearly about more than dancing on a dance floor; it’s about the dance between two people falling into a relationship together. “A man was still dancing with his phantom partner / Though the band had quit playing at the evening’s end / And it made me feel lucky that I had a partner / To teach me the dance steps and come back again.” Beautiful. It’s also the title track on Keen’s debut album from 1984, which, with songs like “Rolling By,” “The Armadillo Jackal,” and “The Front Porch Song” (the definitive version of which is on 1988’s The Live Album), established him as a promising songwriter, but it’s still a period where he was finding his voice, and was largely confined to an acoustic guitar.

“Corpus Christi Bay”

Robert Earl Keen - Corpus Christi Bay

This is from 1993’s A Bigger Piece of Sky, which is mostly ballads and mostly ignored on No. 2 Live Dinner (the only up-tempo song, “Amarillo Highway” is the only song that appears on that both albums). This is a great character study from a middle-aged first person narrator describing how and why he never managed to get out of Corpus Christi. The refrain, “If I could live my life all over / It wouldn’t matter anyway / ‘Cause I never could stay sober / on the Corpus Christi Bay” is both liberating and kind of depressing because of how well Keen portrays his characters. A Bigger Piece of Sky is one of Keen’s most consistent albums, partially because it holds the melancholy mood throughout…which also means it could drag if you’re not into that kind of thing.

“Feeling Good Again”
From 1998’s Walking Distance, this may be the best song of Keen’s career for my money. Its midtempo guitar picking and ascending melody convey “feeling good” not as some euphoric “a-ha” moment, but rather a pervasive state of contentment. This song is all I want out of life, and I imagine I’m not alone. In three minutes, Keen manages a masterpiece. The rest of the album has some great songs as well, like “Down That Dusty Trail” or “That Buckin’ Song” – another example of Keen’s sense of humor.

After another exemplary outing on 2001’s Gravitational Forces (check out “Walking Cane” for a nice country-blues), Keen’s output starts going downhill. Farm Fresh Onions, from 2003, has some interesting genre experiments (the title track is like a retro psychedelic cut, while “Furnace Fan” sticks much closer to Keen’s wheelhouse). After that, nothing has really made an impression on me.

Yet, the impetus for this whole post has been Keen’s new album, Ready for Confetti. So how does that stack up? Well, lead single “I Gotta Go” is fantastic. It’s got a great honky-tonk stomp to it, and sounds fairly original within Keen’s repertoire. Much of the rest of the record is kind of re-treading old ground (especially true about “Paint the Town Beige,” which originally appeared on A Bigger Piece of Sky). However, later tracks like “Who Do Man” and “Soul of Man” have a decent amount of energy and sound inspired at times. “Lay My Brother Down” is another of Keen’s ballads that he does so well. The rest of the album doesn’t hold up as well. “Waves on the Ocean” sounds like a mixture between 80s-era Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffet, while “Top Down” is a lounge song with kind of awkward and uncomfortable lyrics. Overall, the album adds a couple of good tracks to Keen’s repertoire, but isn’t quite up to “return-to-form” status.

Robert Earl Keen - I Gotta Go

Despite Keen’s mediocre last three or four albums, his legendary status in Austin was cemented by his first ten albums, which rank anywhere from good to transcendent. That’s a 20-year run of greatness that has soundtracked the life of countless Central Texans. If you want to musically integrate into this region, Keen is going to be a critical part of that. Hopefully this was a helpfully primer on his career, and of course I’d love to hear from longtime Keen fans about your favorites, and from new listeners about which songs are resonating most with you.