Country genius Robert Earl Keen plays the Knick on Sunday
Texas is a state, yes. But it's in its own way a vast universe unto itself, encompassing numerous ecosystems from swamps, big cities and the Piney Woods to mountains, the Gulf Coast and deserts — and each is populated by characters as distinctive and colorful as the land itself. Singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, a Houston native who lives with his family on a ranch near Kerrville in the Texas hill country, not only knows this, but he thrives on it.
Now 62, with a dozen studio albums and more than 100 songs of what can only be called musical literature, Keen has, with wonder, wit and tenderness and full-throttle joy, chronicled Texas' indigenous winners, losers, migrant workers, cowboys, criminals, dreamers, lovers, troubadours, Christmas-Day-convenience-store shoppers, and plenty of other hard-for-anyone-else-to-pinpoint vagabonds.
If you know Keen's work — and his insanely good band — you've already got your tickets for Sunday's concert at the Knickerbocker Music Center in Westerly. If you're not particularly familiar, get to the show. Over the course of two dazzling hours, you'll become a fan for life.
Keen is most familiar for three songs. One is "The Road Goes on Forever," a cinematic, modern day "Bonnie and Clyde" saga with a genius refrain — "The road goes on forever / And the party never ends" — that was appropriated as a war cry by thousands of beer-marinated frat boys who sort of missed the song's point. Keen finds this painfully amusing.
The second is "Merry Christmas from the Family," a brilliantly comic look at what, in many parts of blue-collar Texas, is a typical holiday gathering. Sung in Keen's ironic, cactus-thistle voice, it's hilarious and brutally on-target, but it's also full of heart and a weird sense of pride.
Then there's the autobiographical "Gringo Honeymoon," written about an impromptu afternoon on the Mexican border that Keen shared with his wife, Kathleen, shortly after they were married. It's as though Cormac McCarthy and Robert James Waller were hired to script a Hallmark Channel wedding movie and Keen provided the soundtrack. Simply one of the best love songs ever.
That triumvirate is straight out of Keen 101, and they are included here simply because the artist is still expanding a burgeoning New England fan base. But he's got hundreds of songs equally good if not better. Hear the heartbreaking "Mariano," more important than ever in this age of Trumpian immigration policy. Hop in the beer-scented hangover-mobile for a speeding cruise across Oklahoma in "Shades of Gray" — and be careful when your jaw drops on one of the greatest twist endings in the annals of songwriting.
"Corpus Christi Bay." "Farm-Fresh Onions." "Amarillo Highway." "The Great Hank." "Whenever Kindness Fails." "Jesse with the Long Hair." "Dreadful Selfish Crime." "Over the Waterfall." "Think It Over One Time." "Feelin' Good Again." The songs go on forever; the hints of bluegrass, honkly tonk, border balladry, Western Swing, folk and gospel all filtered through the prism of Keen's greatness.
Last week, after all-night fun with a flat tire on the tour bus, the yet-cheerful and eloquent Keen called to talk a while. Here are excerpts, edited for space.
On whether he shares a lot of fans' indignation that he didn't become as big as he deserved:
"You know, things have worked out pretty well. I did used to bemoan my fate and think maybe I'd been unlucky, but in the end I've been very fortunate. I've had a long, gradual, sustained career. In one way, it's interesting to be on the outside and watch other's careers blow up. All of a sudden, an artist gets really big, almost overnight. And a lot of times it doesn't last.
"They're not going to be seeing and hearing what I've seen and heard — or what I'm seeing and hearing. It's a different perspective. This is what I'm doing forever. I've gone steadily along, and it's been fine."
Keen's band includes, with years of service in parentheses, guitarist Rich Brotherton (25), bassist Bill Whitbeck (23), drummer Tom Van Schaik (21), and pedal steel guitarist Marty Muse (18). On the sincere observation that it's one of the best bands in the world:
"Our core band has been together going back over 20 years. I like to think we're as cool and unique as you could ask for. (Laughs.) It's a lot of fun, and we know exactly where we're going and what we're doing, even though we never play the same show twice. After the (2016) bluegrass album, I added fiddler Brian Bacon and mandolinist Kym Warner. They're half my age and just fantastic players.
"Everyone talks about 'See so-and-so's live show' or 'See this or that person live,' and there's so much happening with lasers and LED screens and big stage productions. But I'll tell you what. We have a world-class band, and I love seeing these guys play every night. And I want other people to see them play, too."
In Keen's 2004 and slightly surreal "The Great Hank," the song's real-time narrator recounts seeing Hank Williams perform in a Cincinnati bar. Williams tells the crowd he used to be a big star but "now country music is full of freaks." On whether the 2018 Hank would still feel the same way about contemporary country music:
"I think Hank was correct in that assessment in this way: The perspective in his time was that songs came naturally — straight off the farm and out of the barrooms and speakeasys. Hank didn't know what a superstar was. He wrote and sang songs because that's what he did. It's no longer about being a good musician or songwriter or about just playing music. It's a circus about who can get there first or who can become the biggest. I'm more embarrassed for today's artists these days. There's a joke among the older musicians back in Texas: you've got to have your own T-shirts before you can start a band."
It's fairly typical that, when an arts writer asks an artist which album or book in an artist's own catalog is a favorite, she or he will respond with whatever's the latest project. But a lot of older musicians or authors are seemingly more reflective and can offer a more objective assessment. On whether Keen can pinpoint any of his albums as a particular favorite:
"'A Bigger Piece of Sky.' (1993.) That album has some great songs on it; there's not a runt in the bunch to me. I'm always kind of slow following up on a record, and that's not by accident. A lot of the time I'll think, 'That was really good,' and I want to give it some time and think about what I did and what I'll do.
"The album before 'A Bigger Piece of Sky' was 'West Textures,' and it was really well received by critics, and it had a lot of songs I liked (including 'The Road Goes on Forever'). And I got almost nothing from them. I thought, 'Well, hell, I've got to get off my ass and make another record, and I can't repeat what I just did because it isn't working.'
"The songs came out a lot darker and more personal ... My producer didn't like the songs, so I found (novice) Garry Velletri to produce instead and used my own money and made the record for $12,500. Today the album sounds a bit dated to me; it's not as sonically clear as some of the others. But the experience of making it on my terms, and the songs I wrote as a reaction to 'West Textures' ... I thought then and I think now, and I can say it, 'That's a great record.'"
If you go
Who: Robert Earl Keen and the Robert Earl Keen Band
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, door 7 p.m.
Where: Knickerbocker Music Center, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly
How much: $50 advance, $55 door
For more information: (401) 315-5070
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