By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Given the contrarian nature of the underground, it was inevitable that naïve indie rockers who described their music interests as "anything but country" end up drawn to their genre blind spot. Distancing themselves from Nashville, they've affixed an alt- prefix to these rootsy forays, but it's a meaningless misnomer that does little to distinguish themselves from antecedents Hank Williams and Merle Haggard (who they appreciate) and the hat-wearing, cowboy country they disdain. What artists like Son Volt, Palace, Wilco, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams have succeeded in is relaxing the cultural/musical boundaries, providing an on-ramp for indie-rock fans to those country artists who would just as soon divorce themselves from the Nashville country scene.
Robert Earl Keen is one such artist, who even goes as far as to suggest he makes "country music for people who hate country music." It's appropriate, then, that after the collapse of his last label, Arista Nashville, just as his 1998 album Walking Distance was gaining steam, he should sign to a label that so shares his ethos. With headline-making signings of Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams, Universal's alt-country imprint Lost Highway has made inroads into just the kind of audience Keen deserves. In response, Keen released his most mature album to date, Gravitational Forces. Whereas in the past Keen's turned his narrative gift toward parody (such as the humorous redneck ode "Merry Christmas From the Family") and outlaw epics (the country equivalent of a car chase), here he displays some of his most evocative work to date, such as "Not a Drop of Rain," describing a relationship that's dried up and blown away: "Convince myself I'll wake up in another time and place/Knowing all the while it's a promise I can't keep/A string of broken promises, another link of chain/It's been a long hot summer, not a drop of rain."
Musically, Keen wanders the linkage country provides between folk and blues, borrowing liberally from both--the harmonica-driven country-folk of "Wild Wind" is a dead ringer for The Band; the dusty, windswept "Goin' Nowhere Blues," lauding visionaries from Martin Luther to Arlo Guthrie, could have been written by Neil Young. "The Road Goes on Forever" revels in small-town characters like a rootsier, two-step variation on The Boss, while the title track features spoken blank verse over a shuffling beat, as if a beatnik poetry reading. Keen balances this adventurousness with a healthy respect for classics, covering artists like Johnny Cash, Terry Allen and Townes Van Zandt. While covers by Nanci Griffith, Joe Ely and former college roommate Lyle Lovett have earned him a level of fame and respect as a songwriter, with his latest album Keen emerges as a terrific musician in his own right.
Likewise, Cory Morrow made important creative inroads on his latest album, Outside the Lines. A fellow Texan, Morrow shares with Keen a sharp pen and a perceptive eye, as well as a fascination with lost, itinerant souls. While much of the album covers familiar love-lorn/love-lost territory, the rambling C&W-flavored "In Spite of Spite" and the smooth, pretty "Drinkin' Alone" pose interesting counterpoints with characters looking at temptation from both sides of sin's fence. But while Morrow's sentiments and subject matter may be as old as the hills, he's a magician at capturing a larger feeling with a simple turn of a phrase, whether it be on the celtic-tinged love song "More Than Perfect" or the love-lost country rocker "Misty Shade of Blue," lamenting in the chorus, "I saw her smiling just the way she'd done before I remember that feeling, but I don't remember what it's for." Employing a wicked sense of humor that creeps out from time to time, the album's covers trace similar paths of dissolution--a furious fiddle and steel version of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" and the roots-inflected "Straight to Hell" by Drivin' 'n Cryin'. Co-producer Lloyd Maines helps ensure the crispness of Morrow's Texas/Bakersfield twang, as well as contributing to the playing. Morrow's singing is rich, smooth and assured, contributing to the warm textures that suffuse the whole album, somewhat in contrast to the slightly gritty feel of Keen's album. Morrow's a relative newcomer, with only three albums of studio originals to Keen's nine, but together with like-minded Texas artists such as Pat Green and Charlie and Bruce Robison, they're intent on maintaining Texas' progressive country heritage established with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Terry Allen.