Monday, September 29, 2008

The Songwriting of Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen is one of the most popular Texas singer songwriters working today. His biggest hits like The Road Goes on Forever, Merry Christmas from the Family, Copenhagen, and That Buckin' Song showcase his twisted sense of humor, clever songwriting and good taste in music. His loyal fans love these songs. Go to a live show and you will see the nightly sing along. It is very entertaining.

Most of his fans look like Aggie frat boys or slightly aged frat boys. They all dress like Scott F*g*n on a typical day at the office: Roper boots, pressed khakis, button down oxford shirt with tee shirt underneath, and a ball cap. These fans come to the show to hear the music, drink beer, and sing along to Robert's biggest hits. Todd Snider's song Beer Run captures this scene very accurately. If you haven't heard it, you should add it to your play list. It is a very funny song from a very talented artist.

The first time I saw Robert play in Hebbronville in the winter of 1999, I was impressed with his live show and his connection with the audience. Afterwards when I listened more closely to his CDs, I began to appreciate the depth of his songwriting talent. If you look beyond his crowd-pleasers, this man has written some songs that put him in a league with any of the best modern songwriters Texas has ever produced. These writers include Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, and Guy Clark, to name a few.

With that thought in mind, I would like to point out a few of his best written songs. Although the frat boys may not know all these words by heart, I think they represent the high spots of Robert's writing talent. 

Paint the Town Beige   From the album Bigger Piece of Sky, this song was the final track on the original sequencing. With a mellow backing that starts with a few chords, the lyrics are the finest in his songbook. This song can always bring a tear to my eye and that puts it in rare company. My guess is that the basis for this song is Robert's move from Austin to the Hill Country. He has written it from the heart and it shows in the words. I love the image of the "bigger piece of sky":

             I gave up the fast lane for a blacktop county road
Just burned out on all that talk about the motherlode
I traded for a songbird and a bigger piece of sky
When I miss the good old days
I can't remember why

Still I get restless and drive into town
I cruise once down Main Street and turn back around
It's crazy but God knows I don't act my age
Like an old desperado who paints the town beige

Crazy Cowboy Dream.    Also from the album Bigger Piece of Sky. This has a little more of a traditional country sound than most REK compositions. I love the steel guitar and the fiddle together. Good lyrics with great descriptive writing. I love the juxtaposition of the silver spurs and gold tequila on the chorus. I also like the image of the saddle and the cowboy dream. Very subtle and well written:

Silver spurs and gold tequila
                 You know they keep me hanging on
 pretty girls and old cantinas
Give me shelter from the storm
The miles that I have traveled 
The places that I have seen
Just won't let me put a saddle 
On this crazy cowboy dream

Runnin' with the Night    From the album Picnic, this song has a great beat and I'm not sure why Robert doesn't play it in the live shows. The words are clever when they repeat with slight variation on each chorus:

                           I've never been no daytime guy
Love the neon light
I'm a saxophone, flash of chrome
Runnin' with the night

I've never been no daytime guy
Love the neon light
I'm a swinging door, a meteor
Runnin' with the night

I'm a secret plan, a highwayman
Runnin' with the night

I'm an amber eye, a coyote's cry
I'm a wall of fire, an angel choir

Let the Music Play     From his very underrated album Farm Fresh Onions, it is a dark tale of disappointment and trickery in the modern world which is described using images from the old west. I really like the Hank Williams references in Luke the Drifter and cheating heart with the steel guitar accents from the great Marty Muse:

              He was nothing but a drifter
And he came to play the part
Disguised as Luke the Drifter
Talk about a cheating heart

Now you're alone and barely breathing
Looking down from up above
Needing something to believe in
One lonely truth and love
And the storm is slowly dying
At the breaking of the day
All the steel guitars are crying
I'm rolling down that lost highway

Road to Nowhere      From Walking Distance, it is part of a song cycle that includes some of his sweetest lyrics. This song is from the third part of the story. All the lyrics in the three songs are very well realized with beautiful words. It is my favorite part of the album:

            I climbed the mountains and I swept the plains
I crossed the border and I broke my chains
I walked the back roads 'til my shoes wore through
I'm still without you.... without you

I thought I'd find
You would leave my mind
But my dreams they just don't know
They can't seem to let you go
I'm so sad I don't know what to do
             Without you

Broken End of Love    From the album What I Really Mean, this song has great words. I'm sure that nobody writing in Nashville today has worked the word metamorphosis into a country song:

                        Line of sight, speed of sound
Feel of flesh the long way down
Flash of light you look around it's over
You're OK, but I'm a mess
It's the way it goes I guess
I think I thought we would last forever

What am I gonna do about this
It ain't no metamorphosis
It's the cold and bitter broken end of love

As you can see from these songs, Robert is a very talented songwriter. You should add the following CDs to your playlist or library, if you don't have them already. All are available on iTunes or from Amazon.
  1. Bigger Piece of Sky
  2. Picnic
  3. Farm Fresh Onions (Whitney Vogt's favorite)
  4. What I Really Mean

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I was riding around at the ranch last week listening to AM country radio. After I got finished puking on my boots, I realized that my usual rant about the music that is played on country radio is still justified. Every song I heard had banal lyrics over bad rock/country backing. It was the typical name-checking of country themes and situations that passes for songwriting in Nashville these days. Hank Sr is twisting in his grave listening to this crap.

 I have been beating on Toby Keith, Taylor Swift, Big and Rich and Sugarland, but most of what I heard was even worse than what that motley crew turns out. It made me miss Outlaw Country on my Sirius radio and particularly Mojo Nixon. That guy plays real music, tells it like it is, and doesn't put up with any kind of musical bulls**t. 

Listening to this junk started me thinking about a good modern country album to recommend. One of the best country albums to be released in the last 10 years is What I Deserve by Kelly Willis. This is an album I can get excited about.

 Kelly lives in Austin, Texas and is married to Bruce Robison. Bruce is a great songwriter who has written several number 1 country hits including Travelin' Soldier, Angry All the Time and Wrapped. Bruce's brother is Charlie Robison, who is a fine musician as well. We call him the  human jukebox because he can play and sing the first verse of any classic country song you can name. It is an impressive family of musicians.

Kelly, who is very easy on the eyes, has a great voice and uses it well on this release. She picked some great songs, some of which she wrote or co-wrote. Bruce also contributed a few of his and she even covers a tune by Dan Penn (see post of  July 21). These are songs that have something to say and you will not get tired of listening to them. The backing is tasteful and shows off her vocals well.

 If you don't already own What I Deserve, pick it up today. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I am going to let my satellite radio lead the way again. When I got in my sled this morning the first thing I heard was Bruce Springsteen singing Viva Las Vegas, written by the great Doc Pomus. I had been planning a post about him, so here it goes:

In the early 80's I was lucky to meet Pomus at the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly, RI. Big Joe Turner was playing that night with the Roomful of Blues and Pomus was there with Big Joe. By then, Turner was a little past his prime, but it was a memorable night of music anyway. I was honored to meet two legendary blues figures.

Jerome Felder was born in Brooklyn, NY on June 27, 1924. Born Jewish and with childhood polo, Pomus was an unlikely candidate to be a rhythm and blues singer. He did have a fairly successful career singing at blues clubs in the New York area. After 12 years, Pomus decided that song writing might be a better life for a newly married man. Hooking up with Mort Shuman, Pomus fell into the vibrant music scene at the Brill Building in New York.

Very quickly, Pomus and Shuman wrote some of the biggest hits of the day including: Love Roller Coaster, Save the Last Dance for Me, This Magic Moment, Suspicion, and Viva Las Vegas. Many of their songs were recorded by Atlantic Records artists who were produced by the great Jerry Wexler (see post on August 17). Wexler later said about Pomus: "If the music industry had a heart, it would be Doc Pomus."

The version of Save the Last Dance for Me by the Drifters has been one of my favorite songs since I heard it on AM radio as a child. Knowing now that it was written about Doc's own wedding where he watched from the sidelines as his new bride danced the night away only intensifies the emotion of the words. What seems to be a sweet love song actually has dark undercurrents of anxiety and jealousy in Ben E. King's soulful vocal:

             You can dance, go and carry on
                    Till the night is gone
                    And it is time to go
                    If he asks if you're all alone
                    Can he walk you home, you must tell him no
                    'Cause don't forget who's taking you home
                     And in whose arms you're gonna be
                     Save the last dance for me

In addition to his song writing, Doc Pomus lived a very colorful life. There are too many stories for this short post. Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely life & Times of Doc Pomus is a wonderful biography. I recommend it highly.

Essential Pomus music on iTunes includes the following:
  1. Love Roller Coaster                         Big Joe Turner
  2. Boogie Woogie Country Girl         Big Joe Turner
  3. Lonely Avenue                                   Ray Charles
  4. Save the Last Dance for Me The  Drifters
  5. This Magic Moment The Drifters
  6. Little Sister                                           Elvis Presley
  7. Young Boy Blues Ben E. King
  8. Suspicion  Elvis Presley

Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute To Doc Pomus is an album of his songs covered by modern artists. It is worth the money just to hear Bob Dylan's country-punk snarl on Boogie Woogie Country Girl. Priceless. Not on iTunes, but available from Amazon.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Levon Helm singing You Better Move On was the first thing I heard coming out of the satellite radio on my drive to the office this morning. A welcome sound on a Monday morning cruising down the bay front. It is a cut from the recently released Imus Ranch Record. Levon does an excellent job on his version of this classic song. What do you expect from a founding member of The Band, who reportedly now looks like a hippie bird watcher from outer space?

Hearing this tune reminded me that I wanted to write a post on Arthur Alexander, who wrote that great song. Like two other singers that I have covered in previous posts: James Carr (June 2) and Chuck Willis (August 11), Alexander is all but forgotten today. His country soul sound was as good as anything recorded at the time, but he has now fallen into obscurity.

Born in Florence, AL in 1942, Alexander began singing in church as a child, He was working as a bellhop when he recorded his 1962 hit You Better Move On. It was the first hit recorded at the Muscle Shoals studio and it went to #24 on the pop charts. He followed it with Anna  (Go To Him), which was covered by The Beatles on their album Please Please Me in 1963.

In a familiar story, the English groups were more aware of this American talent then anyone in his own country. The Rolling Stones covered You Better Move On and The Beatles recorded Anna and Soldier of Love, another great Alexander composition. It is has been reported that John Lennon was influenced at the time by Alexander's songwriting.

Those English lads recorded some nice covers of Alexander's best songs, but his own versions are much better. His sweet soul voice over the Muscle Shoals backing makes for some memorable music. I particularly like his work on Soldier of Love.

Unfortunately, these first songs were the extent of Alexander's commercial success. After that, he had a few minor hits for a number of labels, but soon drifted out of the business. He was driving a bus before his minor comeback in 1993 with the album Lonely Like Me. On tour in support of that album, Alexander fell ill and later died in June 0f 1993.

Regrettably, none of Alexander's back catalogue is available on iTunes. The Ultimate Arthur Alexander is the best way to own the music of this forgotten star. This collection of his best work on the fine Razor and Tie label is available from Amazon. Check it out.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


 Earlier in the week, Hurricane Ike was projected to make a direct hit on Corpus Christi. Fortunately for everyone in South Texas, the path of the storm moved to the north as Ike got closer to land. Very early this morning, Ike came ashore at Galveston and is moving through Houston at the present time. 

South Texas was lucky to be spared the high wind and rain that has been seen to the north of us. At the present time, we are in a critical part of our quail hatching cycle. There are many very young birds and nests on the ground. Neither of these would have done well under hurricane weather conditions.

Having gotten through this storm, I can say with confidence that we are going to have a very good quail season in South Texas. I have reports of at least three different sizes of adult or near adult birds. We are also seeing little birds that can't even fly. These are the result of the breeding activity after the rain that came with Hurricane Dolly in early July. Better make plans to come down.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


In an effort to keep writing about modern music, here is a post about a new artist I really like. My good wife claims that I never listen to anything recorded after 1975. For the most part, she is right (about everything), but there are a few exceptions: new Dylan albums, Robert Earl Keen and a few others. 

Recently, I found somebody new I really like. His name is Sam Baker. Before you read any further, if you like Toby Keith, Big & Rich or Sugarland, hit delete now. This guy is not for you.

Sam Baker is a talented singer songwriter who lives in Austin, Texas. He has a very interesting personal history. Sam was traveling in Peru in 1986 on a train that was bombed by radicals. He was very badly hurt and lost some of his hearing and part of the fingers on one hand. After a series of operations and rehabilitation, he was able to play again.

Sam sings with a gruff, almost spoken word voice. His songs are simple, yet filled with stories of people who reflect a wide range of real life experiences. Part Townes Van Zandt with a little Robert Earl Keen mixed with John Prine, the songs have great words and images. With minimal guitar backing, he tells great stories with very few words. It is unlike anything I have ever heard before. 

If you are ready for something different and exciting, pick up Pretty World. Available at Amazon and on iTunes. 

Saturday, September 6, 2008


The three Bobs that are slated for coverage on this blog are Bob Dylan, bobwhite quail and Bob (Robert Earl) Keen. There has been plenty of mention of Bob Dylan in the last few weeks. Recent posts included a review of his show at the MGM (See August 16) that ended up getting a link on

I am saving most of the quail posts until we get to the beginning of the season. There will be plenty of news and updates from Jim Hogg County this winter.

I guess that leaves Mr. Keen for a post now. This works well because I made a promise to get back to the modern era for a post or two and I just caught his live show at the Nokia Theatre in New York City last night.

For those of you who are not familiar with Robert, he is a Texas singer songwriter who got his start in the music business while attending Texas A&M University. There, he lived with Lyle Lovett and wrote the Front Porch Song, which they have both recorded. His best known song is The Road Goes on Forever, which has been covered by many other artists including Joe Ely and also The Highwaymen and has added that phrase to the English language. (At least in Texas)

In my opinion, he is the best Texas songwriter working today. He writes songs in the tradition of other great Texas writers like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Billy Joe Shaver. His words are lyrical and insightful and he stays away from the name checking of country themes that is so common today.  His work is much better than the crap that is being turned out in Nashville for the radio today. Toby Keith, Big & Rich, Sugarland, Taylor Swift....these artists can't carry water for REK. 

Back to last night. After a drink and a quick dinner at Granny's House on 54th Street, I headed down to the theatre for a visit backstage before the show. I had a great time with Bill Whitbeck, the bass player in the band, who has to be one of the most enthusiastic Dylan fans I have ever met. We had a great conversation and convinced ourselves that Bob was the King without much trouble.

When the show began, I was sitting on the stage just to the side of Rich Brotherton, the guitar player, which was a perfect vantage point for all the action. The band sounded great. Robert was in good voice and the crowd was fired up.

If you haven't seen Robert live, I urge you to catch a show. He has a real connection with his fans and this is evident during the live shows. Robert always tells a story or two with the songs and this adds to the fun for everyone. He is very charismatic on stage. 

The band has been together for a long time, so you get a nice ensemble feel to the music. Marty's steel guitar adds a traditional country sound to the otherwise Alt-County music. Rich is excellent on a variety of leads. Bill and Tom make up a solid rhythm section.

All and all, it was a magical night. My only regret is that I wasn't able to go on to Woodstock and hear them open for Levon Helm at the Ramble tonight.

Recommended REK albums include the recent What I Really Mean, A Bigger Piece of Sky and Picnic. All are available at Amazon or on iTunes. Check him out.