It's not a stretch to imagine Robert Earl Keen as a wannabe journalist. With an eye for detail and an ear for a great story, he writes songs that almost betray the fact that he studied journalism at Texas A&M before hooking up with a young nobody in the early '80s named Lyle Lovett. While his buddy went on to fame and a movie-star marriage, Keen has always hit a little closer to home, gravitating in the '90s to the sparse honesty and purity extolled by the alt-country scene without ever fully becoming part of any trend. His most recent disc, 2005's What I Really Mean, is as good an album as he's ever made; spiking twang and humor with slow strums and introspection, it's a set of tunes that plumbs the personal to dredge up the universal. And with nods to Hank Williams alongside a cameo by the legendary Ray Price, Keen's latest offering nudges him that much closer to the pantheon of all-time country greats -- and a name always destined to appear above the bylines, not in them.
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