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Robert Earl Keen
Arista Austin Records
It's always an iffy proposition when a much-loved indie cult artist signs with a major label and makes the move to the big time. For sure, our hero deserves a global audience and riches for his/her good works. But will the attendant stoogery inherent in a major-label deal allow the artist to preserve the integrity that attracted the fervent and secret cognoscenti to begin with? Or will the three-piece puppeteers holding the purse strings water down the music and image in a series of greasy corporate maneuverings calculated to render the end product maximally appetizing to the brain-dead masses?
In Texas, reaction to news that Robert Earl Keen had left Sugar Hill Records for a fresh and high-profiled new beginning with Arista Austin was ambivalent. On the one hand, Keen offers the potential to interject a major blast of brilliance and integrity into the fetid cemetery that is country music today.
But there's a reason, after all, why Keen's music has heretofore been anathema in Nashville proper. To start with, he has a voice like a lumberjack swallowing a tumbleweed. Secondly, his stark and evocative lyrical sense is more reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy than of the punny greeting-card sentiments favored by those who crank out Young Country. And finally, his narrative wanderlust and skewered affection for genuine outlaws and their behavioral psychoses pose philosophical questions far more in common with Steve Earle and vintage Willie Nelson than with, say, any calculations as to how many Tim McGraws and Billy Ray Cyruses can dance on the grave of Ernest Tubb.
By definition, though, Arista Austin should allay our fears. It's a label designed to carry in its heart true country--and if Keen's Picnic is representative, ours is a better world for their efforts. Though Keen benefits from his new clout with duet and backing vocals from Margo Timmins, he's at the same time able to use his road band on the record--an event that occurs in Nashville with the approximate frequency of an ice age.
As for the meat of the matter--the songs--Keen is as adept, colorful, witty, and poignant as ever. He does Saturday night, in all its glorious and creepy possibilities--better than anyone, as on "Undone," "Running With the Night," and particularly "Shades of Gray," with its astonishing denouement. "Over the Waterfall" has the pristine melodic attraction of Hal Ketchum at his finest, and shrewd renditions of James McMurtry's "Levelland" and Dave Alvin's "Fourth of July" indicate that Keen's as clever at picking great cover tunes as he is writing his own.