Keen Thinking

Robert Earl Keen won't dumb down his music for country consumption.

Long before he could play a lick, Robert Earl Keen was penning songs. He just didn't know it at the time.

"I've always written rhyming poetry well, from when I was five years old," says Keen, who's in his early forties. "I'd just grab words out of the air. I remember how one time back then I had to ask my mom how to spell 'silhouette.' And when I was in fifth grade, I didn't know what the word 'subdue' meant, but it just popped into my head when I was writing a poem about the earth, I think. That's the one true gift I've got. I can't always control it, but when I'm able to turn it on correctly, I come up with more than I ever could've thought up consciously trying."

Plenty of Keen's peers agree: Whenever roots and country artists are asked to come up with a list of their favorite tunesmiths, odds are good that Keen's name will be near the top of it. A Texas native who grew up in the Houston area, he met and befriended Lyle Lovett when both were attending Texas A&M during the late Seventies, and like the man with the big hair, Keen is adept at assembling narratives from the stuff of real life--the sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes baffling things each of us encounters between climbing out of bed at the beginning of the day and climbing back into it again at day's end. And even though he's got seven fine albums to his credit (No Kinda Dancer, The Live Album, West Textures, A Bigger Piece of Sky, Gringo Honeymoon, No. 2 LIVE Dinner and Picnic), he's not even close to running out of material. On May 27, with studio time already booked for the recording of his next offering for the Arista Austin imprint, he realized that he needed some new songs to sing--so he wrote nine of them, just like that.

"Even for me, that was pretty fast," he concedes. "I was kind of under the gun because we'd been touring so heavily. But this is what I like to do. It's not like I first decided to become a singer-songwriter and then said, 'Oh, yeah, I'd better learn how to do the writing part of it.'"

What's been more difficult for Keen over the years is convincing people that he's a damn fine performer, too. Part of the problem may be that he got his start not on country labels, but on folk imprints. No Kinda Dancer first appeared during the mid-Eighties on Philo, and the arrangements on the platter managed to feel spare even when trombones, trumpets and tubas were part of the mix. Later Keen moved to Sugar Hill, a company that's well-known in the folk and bluegrass communities. Thus, only a relative handful of people knew that Keen is a smart, sassy, authentic honky-tonker at heart.

Fortunately for Keen, he's getting better at capturing these qualities on CD. Picnic, his 1997 Arista Austin debut, sports the kind of grade-A production he's long deserved, and it brings out the best in him. His singing, which can sound a bit nondescript on CD, is more effective than it's been on any of his previous studio recordings, and the contributions of his road band and guests such as onetime Denverite Tim O'Brien and Cowboy Junkies chanteuse Margo Timmons give the tracks the heft they need. "Undone" is a rich character study about an embittered loser ("It ain't your fault, but they need someone/To blame it on when they come undone"); "Shades of Gray" lays out a mistaken-identity scenario that alters the dynamics of three friendships forever ("We turned around to face our fate, hungover but alive/On that morning in late April, Oklahoma 95"); and "Oh Rosie" exudes equal parts romance and regret ("Now I'm in Denver/In this old bar/Tryin' to do anything to hang on to you").

Picnic's title commemorates the 1974 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, at which Keen's car was burnt to a crisp in a parking-lot fire; a photo of it in flames graces the cover. But Keen also intended the handle to imply that "the group of songs I was presenting kind of went from A to Z. It was like, here's your picnic, ants and all." Now, however, Keen regards the platter's diversity to be its primary weakness, and he intends to make amends on his next effort. "I've always felt that I wasn't consistent enough throughout my records," he notes. "In Picnic, say, you have 'Over the Waterfall,' which is a dreamy, stream of consciousness sort of thing, on the same record as 'Then Came Lo Mein,' which is a quirky, crying-in-your-beer song. So I wanted more consistency, and that's why I've sort of stuck with one theme on the new one--that theme being that hope carries on, although every person is alone."

Keen's description of the as-yet-untitled full-length's centerpiece makes his ambitions plain. "There are three songs connected in a story kind of way," he says. "The first is called 'The Road to No Return,' which is like a verse and a chorus. And then it goes into a song about this man who goes crazy and accidentally kills his wife; then he leaves the country and winds up in Mexico. Then there's another song where he's alone, but life carries on, and that goes back into 'The Road of No Return.'"

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