Over the last twenty or so years, Robert Earl Keen has become the quintessential Texas singer songwriter. He’s honed his ability to weave a quirky story with familiar oddball characters and put it to a catchy tune that frequently manages to work its way into the state’s larger musical tapestry.
Think “The Road Goes On Forever” or “Merry Christmas From The Family”. They’re both practically anthems in these parts. And they both also feature a certain kind of Texas-centric atmosphere that he’s made into a trademark of sorts.
Among the current roster of Texas artists, Keen pretty much stands out as the top dog – and he’s been a major influence – if not the major influence – on a generation of artists who’ve followed in his tracks. Charlie Robison, Jack Ingram, Slaid Cleaves, and their ilk all work in the shadow of Robert Earl. Among his contemporaries, he’s more affable than Lyle Lovett, more pure than Pat Green, less political and intense than Steve Earle, and more fun than Guy Clark.
After a couple of records that may not have lived up to a lot of long-time fans’ expectations, his newest album, “What I Really Mean” on Koch Records Nashville, returns to the kind of songs that have made REK something of an official state treasure; cautionary tales, lovelorn ballads and those observational accounts of outlaws and eccentrics- all sung in that instantly recognizable baritone with just the right amount of twang.
There’s the opening track, “For Love”. With its easy-to-sing-along-with melody, a crucial element in any classic REK concert song, it’s a pretty standard example of a song that would fit on just about any of his albums.
While “What I Really Mean” features a number of songs in this vein, it also ventures into more experimental territory. The second track, “Mr Wolf and Mama Bear,” is as peculiar a story-song as he’s ever written – and from there on the record emerges as his best in a few years.
“The Great Hank” is a stand-out – with its slow paced delivery over acoustic and pedal steel guitar – he tells the tale of seeing Hank Williams singing in drag in a Philadelphia bar. My favorite line:
“And he told her about how he’d been a big star,
But now country music was full of freaks.
He sat there
In the TV glare,
Mascara streaked his cheeks . . . ”
Is it a dream or a hallucination or just an unusual take on a strange experience?
Ironically, considering the title, “What I Really Mean” poses more questions than answers. Other highlights touch on various themes like the darkly mysterious “Long Chain,” with its vaguely bluegrass feel – a plucky banjo and mandolin mixed in with electric guitars, or the classic country heartbreak of “Broken End Of Love” and “Dark Side Of The World” and the hopeful longing of “The Wild Ones.”
Another adventurous track, “A Border Tragedy,” combines a banjo with a mariachi band, a fading radio signal and clever lyrics, then brings in Ray Price to close with a chorus from “Streets Of Laredo.” It sounds pretty implausible but he makes it all work nicely.
It’s that kind of weirdness that really stands out here. He somehow constructs his characters and storylines with an appreciation for the bizarre that never ventures too far out to left field.
“What I Really Mean” gets better with each subsequent listen and on a whole stands with REK’s best records. Not that it’s perfect – that’s not actually Kenny G playing alto sax on the title cut, even though it sure sounds for all the world like it is – but it’s pretty close.
It’s nice to see Robert Earl put out a record like this. It’s a reminder of why he inhabits the place in Texas music that he does and, while it lacks the superficial polish of most mainstream Nashville “product,” it could also be the record that cements his place in the larger landscape of popular country music.
And that couldn’t happen to a more deserving artist.