Tuesday, September 27, 2022


The mythological lure of the road has long attracted attention in way more than just musical memes. We’ll get to that in due course, but it got me thinking around the whole idea of a road trip. Like, what was the first? Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, came initially to mind, until I realised how shortsighted and narrow was my entry angle, remembering the Richard Thompson response: best songs of the millennia, or of all time, did not start with Sinatra. So that in mind, throwing out my net a bit wider, are we talking the Crusades; that was a sort of tour? Or Christ’s 40 day desert gig, did that count? I think a prime contender would have to be Ulysses, his 12 tasks and all that. Tack on the Trojan War and the tour is encroaching Dylanesque Never Ending logistics.

I could be getting carried away here, but it has an appeal. I wonder what was on his rider? And who ran the merch stall? And for all the buzz around Homer, the “official releases”, I’ll bet there were live sets and bootlegs, swapped in chariot parks, before the show. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone somewhere is still putting together a box set, the Ithaca tapes, perhaps. I’m sure I read about it on the Steve Hoffman forum.

So, as they, say. Robert Earl Keen. Whatever happened to him? Nothing bad, to be fair, as he still tours and plays, but, as with, say, Steve Forbert, so much early promise seeming never quite to be capitalised upon. From Houston, Texas, he hit the ground running in the mid 80s, with a signature stripped back sound, bluegrass style instrumentation, allied to rootsy modern folk songs, all sung in his gritty mournful moan. I loved it, and West Textures, his 2nd album was a bona fide delight. Still is, the songs rendered timeless by that old timey anchor. The song that entitles this piece is his best known song, but they all have legs. Heck, at that time, he, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith seemed an insurmountable triad of potential, at whose altars I knelt, in awe. So young and so much talent.

Keen  had a particular knack for a story song, with TRGOFATPNE being the prime evidence. I alway feel the idea for such long haul yarn spinning came from Bob Dylan, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts always coming to mind as the trigger to Keen’s muse.(I suppose, given the earlier paras written, due credit for all epics should maybe go to forbears from times long past, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for his Charge of the Light Brigade, Longfellow  for Hiawatha, or, logically, good ol’ boy Homer himself, but the tunes have been largely lost.) The relatively simple construct, the repetition and the loping propulsive rhythm together produce a suspension of time, the story taking the fill of concentration. Keen was able to show he was no one trick pony, mind, as his next album, A Bigger Piece of Sky, four years later, in 1993, had another cracker, Jesse With the Long Hair Hanging Down. With shock, I note this barely hits 3 and 3/4 minutes, it casting a way longer shadow in my memory, but, details, schmetails, this is still a saga song, just a wee bit shorter. 

Oft seen as his high water mark, A Bigger Piece of Sky, whilst it had its moments, never quite hit my spot as had West Textures. In truth, I sort of went off him a bit after that, as somebody told him his forte might be in humorous songs, an oxymoron by any definition, at least in my book. But he has plugged away, with 20 studio recordings to his name. I gather he is about to hang up his cowboy boots, making me sad I never caught him live. Indeed, of that 80’s trio of performers, Nanci was the only one who ever seemed much to visit the UK, seeing her a host of times between then and the mid 90’s. But I did get to hear one near swansong, as Keen covered a host of his traditional influences: here is what I thought about that album.

A final thought about Keen might be to thank him not only for my beloved West Textures, but also to his enlightening me to the presence and worth of anothe songwriter, one Kevin ‘Blackie’ Farrell, himself no stranger get to the long form song. The exquisite Sonora’s Death Row, covered by Keen on West Textures, is one of his, as is another of my favourites, Mama Hated Diesels, as performed by Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen. Farrell probably deserves a pice in his own right, memo to self, but it’s good to at least have the opportunity to namecheck him, until then.

May the road rise to meet you…….