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


  1. Will,

    I resemble that remark! Oh and by the way, Robert Keen will attest that I only wear nice, blue shirts.

    Scott F*g*n

  2. Nice blog and a warm-hearted commentary on REK's enormous talent as a writer. He certainly captures the essence of the contemporary western male's hopes, dreams and self-induced flame-outs like no one else.

    I totally agree that PICNIC is a must-hear disk. His driving dirge LEVELLAND is one of his best songs, poignantly capturing the character of a dust-beaten West Texas town. It reprises a common theme in Robert's music -- the ambitious energy of a young man stuck in a backwater prairie town.

    "I'm gettin' on a Whisperjet,
    Gonna fly as far as I can get,
    from Levelland..."

    We first heard this theme in ROLLING BY on Robert's debut album NO KINDA DANCER. It's yet another song about a town that time is passing by.

    "Now I stand here at the last filling station...
    As the wind moans a dirge to a coyote's cry...
    I jump in my car, I'm out on the highway...
    Rolling hard, rolling fast, rolling wild....
    Rolling hard, rolling fast, rolling by."

    Interestingly, that theme comes full circle in PAINT THE TOWN BEIGE. But this time it's an older guy moving back to where life is quieter, slower. But he still has that itch working in his psyche, driving him downtown, wondering where the world is going and what he should be doing to catch the right ride.

    It's Robert at his best. He is truly the poet laureate of the restless american man.


    PS: Does anyone know what "Paint the Town Beige" references?

  3. Thanks Runner, nice comments. You write very well aout REK's music. Maybe a blog is in your future? I believe that "Paint the Town Beige" is a take off on the old expression "Paint the Town Red", but I will ask Robert the next time I see him and give you a report back.
    By the Way, Levelland was writen by James McMurtry, but Robert down a nice job on it as well as on Out Here In the Middle. He has a knick for covering James's stuff with style.
    Best, W

  4. Thank you, WTV

    I appreciate the kind words and the input on McMurtry's penning Levelland. I must admit I'm not as good at keeping up on liner notes as I was when I was a kid with hours to spend absorbing a new album.

    I came upon Robert's music late in life and haven't kept up on which songs are his and which are tapped from that rich culture of Texas singer songwriters. I know of Terry Allen's Amarillo Highway (a highlight of any REK concert) and Townes' evocative Snowin' on Raton, but not others. Both tunes are seamless with Robert's voice and the motifs that appear throughout his music. I'll be surely interested to see which other writers are in Robert's repertoire. Maybe a topic for a blog post somewhere, somehow.

    Hey man. Thanks for the chance to yack about an American master. Very Cool.

    Good luck with bird season.


  5. re REK covers: 'travellin' light' has always been one of my favorite rek songs and i recall being a bit disappointed when i finally noticed that he hadnt written it. it's by peter case, who aint bad himself.

  6. First off, great blog. I just drove down to Fayetteville AR. last night to see REK. It was eight songs in before a true sing-along occurred....which was nice. Highlight of the show for me was during the solo portion of the show during the "The Front Porch Song" REK referenced Rascall Flatts, Taylor Swift, and Sugarland resulting in a wall of boos from the, by then, rather rowdy crowd. After that, things got a little foggy for me as well. He did work Broken End in last night. Anyway, back to exploring your blog.

  7. Thanks Double E, glad another REK fan is checking out the blog.I am planing to catch a show in Corpus Christi in December. I know how that fog can come up at thoe shows.
    Cheers, Will

  8. Will- I saw REK for the first time last week - at the Ryman here in Nashville. Todd Snider opened for him and the Greencards helped out. It was a good show. First time I've ever seen him or Todd for that matter. I actually came to like REK backwards by loving Reckless Kelly first. I am a 48 year old, mom of two teenagers- born in New Jersey, raised outside Philly, but have lived in Nashville since 1986. About 5 years ago I got turned on to Texas music. It is the dangdest thing. I can't get enough of it. I am really enjoying Wade Bowen these days too. Anyway, I like your blog. I will visit often. Linda