Above all else, Robert Earl Keen made his name as a songwriter by telling memorable stories. Take his classic “The Road Goes on Forever”, for example. A young-wild-and-on-the-run tale, it’s easily his most often covered song. Joe Ely, the Highwaymen, Jack Ingram, and countless lesser-known folk/country musicians have made it practically a standard of the genre. It’s so universal that Keen is working on a documentary about the song and its impact on people. Beyond that song, Keen’s catalogue is riddled with songs that unite melody and story. Add to that his amiable, if not dynamic, singing style and a general sense for both the carefree and the eccentric, and you have a legend of Texas music.
Keen’s 10th studio album The Rose Hotel opens with another classic story-song about people and their lives. The title track, it takes a potential moment for two people—a missed connection, if you will—and details it, alternating between each end, and uses the chorus as commentary. Its sentiment, “Sometimes you run / Sometimes you fall / Sometimes you don’t get up at all”, makes the song both moving and eerie. The song has that perfect balance between the specific and the mysterious that so many songwriters strive for and fail to attain.
Several other songs carry that same special emphasis on people and their interesting lives. The relaxed, eventually sorrowful “On and On” masterfully works its way from the love story of a dedicated musician and a free-spirited woman into a requiem for the dead. Its “This world keeps spinning / On and on” chorus works in multiple ways. The song ends before you feel the whole story has been told, with dexterous economy. The ultimately bitter “Throwing Rocks” does something similar, teasing out the actual story with suspense. The song is musically dense, even overloaded, an example of the album’s occasional ‘throw in everything’ approach. Yet by the end of the story, as it turns darker, that almost claustrophobic sense seems not just appropriate but essential. There’s a similar, but on its own much more striking, bluesy crunch on “10,000 Chinese Walk Into a Bar”, featuring Billy Bob Thornton on supporting vocals. A rambling bartender’s portraits of his clientele, it’s a slight song that maybe isn’t that slight after all. It captures the notions that it takes all kinds, that truth is stranger than fiction, and that bars offer a fascinating glimpse into humanity.
The other story of The Rose Hotel is Keen and his bountiful band cutting loose, with the help of producer Lloyd Maines. The thick, full sound to much of the album has a tendency to seem overworked. Then again, within even the most loaded song is some amazing playing from skilled musicians, albeit playing that’s often behind or on top of plenty of other playing and singing. The overall impression is a band having a ball playing like crazy.
Several of the songs, too, are deliberately fun. That spirit is served up best in “Something That I Do”, a sunkissed, Dire Straits-ish song about doing nothing at all. There’s a classic Texan laidbackness to it; file it with Slacker as an idler’s staple. The goofiest song on the album, the closer “Wireless in Heaven”, takes that same sense of fun in a less becoming direction. I know plenty of listeners will get a kick out of it, with lines like “do I need a password to log in when I go?” delivered in classic honky-tonk style. But it hits me as a corny joke, its Starbucks setting and Internet references dated already. That said, the point of it, and much of the album, is straight-up having a good time. Keen is exulting in the fact that he’s still kicking around making music.
Music itself is a prominent theme on the album. “Goodbye Cleveland” is from the perspective of a touring musician, down on his luck. “The Man Behind the Drums” is a rousing, the Band-like tribute to Levon Helm and the “midnight rambles” he hosts at his barn in Woodstock. Then there are loving covers of songs by other great American songwriters. One is a duet with the songwriter himself, Greg Brown, on “Laughing River”, a farewell song featuring a memorable character not dissimilar from those in Keen’s songs, a minor-league baseball player who “never made the show”.
The other is a splendid take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Flying Shoes”. This is at least Keen’s third cover of a Van Zandt song, and it’s an excellent version, faithful in a way that shows understanding. I prefer it to Steve Earle’s 2009 album of Van Zandt songs, Townes, as heartfelt a gesture as that was. This year I’ve also seen at least three live performances of Van Zandt songs—from Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and, most recently, Carrie Rodriguez. At this point, Van Zandt has clearly become the Cole Porter or George Gershwin of late-20th century American folk music. And that’s pretty much as it should be. Robert Earl Keen is walking strongly in his footsteps. He may never have the same legacy as a standard-bearer, but The Rose Hotel certainly adds a few more standards to his discography. Young folk singers, take heed: cover one of these songs in place of “The Road Goes on Forever” and set yourself apart.