His work is never done

Robert Earl Keen would like nothing better than to save country music

Robert Earl Keen was country when country didn't want him. It still doesn't, as a matter of fact, but that's OK: Nashville wouldn't know a country singer if one crawled out of Hank Williams' coffin.

But pockets of rabid Robert Earl fans, multiplying like beer-swilling viruses across the country, know him for what he is--one of his generation's finest, most literate, and most authentic singer-songwriters. There's too much going on in his head for country and too much shit on his boots for folk, so it was no surprise when he recently signed with a major non-Nashville label, Arista Texas. His swan song for longtime label Sugar Hill Records was the winning in-concert No. 2 Live Dinner.

Of course, as with many of his pals in that hallowed coterie of Texas songwriters--Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, etc.--Keen has often faced identity problems in that candy-apple gray area between country and folk. But in these homogeneous times, when marketing and labeling strategies are frequently more important to public-relations hacks than the artists they're hired to promote, Keen definitely wants it known that he's country.

"They used to put me in the folk section [in record stores], but I wanted it in country," he says by phone from his office in the Texas Hill Country, where he's paying a few bills before continuing the sporadic road trip in support of No. 2 Live Dinner. "Except for the Northeast, everybody is too embarrassed to go to the folk section; it has this antiquated, kinda bizarre connotation, almost completely uncool."

When you get right down to it, country music has many acoustic and narrative similarities to folk music, but Keen will never be mistaken for Phil Ochs or Peter, Paul & Mary. Keen's tunes--set in honky-tonks and scrub-dotted vistas that stretch out beneath a sky that arcs from horizon to horizon--are populated by border-town desperadoes, Saturday-night pickup-truck romantics, trailer-trash kinfolk, and melancholy wanderers driving lonely roads looking for the past. We know these folks; we've eaten ribs with them, bought bait from them, piled in the car next to them with an ice chest full of longnecks, and ridden the highway to the dawn--or at least the next Robert Earl show.

And therein lies Keen's majesty: Where Joe Ely's songs might try to put Cormac McCarthy onto tape, and Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle tell of losers who gain our sympathies even as we notice their creepy, flawed psychologies, Keen tiptoes a tightrope between humor and wistfulness, setting and insight--all the while sounding like your best pal telling you a crazy story about something that happened since he'd last seen you.

Nashville doesn't need that sort of authenticity, not when Bubba's shooting jukeboxes and Brooks and Dunn are committing even more heinous crimes, doin' their boot-scootin' bullshit to old B.W. Stevenson songs. For shame, but it's what country music's become in the strange decade since Keen released No Kinda Dancer on the Philo label, then headed to Nashville to carve his niche as a songwriter.

At the time, the move seemed fortuitous. "The nature of country music was a little in flux," Keen remembers. "It was coming off some of the fluffy Urban Cowboy [stuff]-- 'Paradise Tonight' with Mickey Gilley and Charly McClain, and that kind of junk." There was a glimmer of hope, though. "Steve Earle and some [other] harder-edged stuff...I felt like I was kinda falling in with those guys."

Unfortunately, he wasn't. After several months without any breakthroughs, bruised and battered, Keen returned to Texas and set up shop in Bandera. He began writing and recording a series of increasingly poignant, funny, and evocative albums--The Live Album (1988), West Textures (1989), A Bigger Piece of the Sky (1993), and Gringo Honeymoon (1994)--that included such anthems as "The Road Goes On Forever," "Whenever Kindness Fails," "Corpus Christi Bay," "Rollin' By," "Merry Christmas From the Family," "Gringo Honeymoon," and "Dreadful Selfish Crime."

Over the course of time, as he earned a following and his songs began to draw critical accolades, Keen's reputation grew among his contemporaries--folks like Ely, Van Zandt, Nancy Griffith, Earle, and Lovett. Lovett, in fact, was Keen's former college buddy from Texas A&M, with whom he wrote "The Porch Song," a beloved tune about their apocryphal mornings on the front porch of their student rent house--strumming guitars and watching coeds--that manages to combine the enthusiasm of youth with the wisdom and endurance of age.

Despite the growing fan base and the respect of his peers, Keen still couldn't crack the Nashville hierarchy. Young Country had reared its ugly head, and it's a shrink-wrapped phenomenon that bears no resemblance to--and has no need for--Keen's work.

"The whole nature of the record industry is to bandwagon everything, and they bandwagoned this hat-act thing--and now they've bandwagoned it to death, as far as I'm concerned," Keen says. "Early on, there were some pretty neat things happening there, and I was really happy about the reintroduction of the steel guitar and a few mentions of a honky-tonk or someone actually having a drink now and then."

"In the '80s, if you came into Nashville and you had a song that had a honky-tonk or mentioned drinking at all, they wouldn't listen to it. So I'm glad that all came back, but now the Young Country stuff is just repetitive. They've worked that deal until it's no longer interesting. I know I'm gonna sound like an old fart, here--this is an old-fart statement--but you really can't tell one from the other."

What has happened is that talents like Earle, Keen, Junior Brown, and Lovett have forced country music to subdivide into two distinct movements--mainstream Nashville and a renegade band of irritated singers and songwriters who revere the authenticity of old-time country music and deplore the cookie-cutter mentality that has produced a generation of Chippendale dancers in Hoss Cartwright hats.

"It had to happen," Keen says. "I know what I write is country music, but then there's this whole other country music--commercial country--and I don't feel like I'm part of that country at all. I don't sing like those guys, I don't dress like those guys, and I couldn't get up there and sing one two-minute-and-51-second hit after another about the some old crap. It's boring."

The fact that Keen has inked a deal with a big label like Arista Texas is another sign that a lot of country music fans are just as sick of the radio formats and slick TNN videos as he is. It's an opportunity Keen is delighted to have.

"I just wanted a chance to move up and get bigger than just my Texas base," he says. "Sugar Hill had done a great job, but my whole thing has gotten larger and larger with each album. I'd almost always run into a wall with Sugar Hill. It was just a question of resources at hand, and I needed to get on the fast track with some of those bigger acts." Keen laughs. "Hey, at a big label, they pay a lot of money to a lot of people to just sit around and think of shit. At this point of my career, I need that."

And so Robert Earl Keen moves on to the next level. It means, sometimes, streamlining the set lists to keep the rowdy college guys happy, and saving some of the more introspective tunes for the smaller solo shows Keen likes to schedule to keep the body of material represented.

"That's become sort of a problem," Keen says, "in that the softer, prettier side is just as much a part of me as the louder, more rambunctious stuff, [but] with bigger crowds you've got to stay on top of the wave."

At 40, blasting into a major-label deal at a time when many rock acts have already joined up with Kansas-Black Oak Arkansas geriatric tours, Keen is fit and rested, primed to return country music to the dignity whence it sprang.

"The nights get shorter and the hangovers get longer," he says wonderingly, "and I've generally had to back off the wildness. Because, anymore, I just can't afford to wipe out a whole day. I feel like my gift is tenuous, and by God I'm gonna take care of it." He laughs. "At least, most of the time."

Robert Earl Keen performs June 13 and 14 at the Sons of Hermann Hall.

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