Robert Earl Keen Jr. has been around for a while, and for a very good reason. He’s very good at what he does. Still out there making his mark in country-cum-folk or roots circles, Keen Jr. recently decided to reissue some of his earlier albums with new bonus tracks.
Keen Jr. got off on the right track with his 1993 album A Bigger Piece Of Sky. As he writes on the back of the album, “I was never satisfied with how this record was originally sequenced, but this new reissue features the songs in the order they were meant to be heard . . . ” “Amarillo Highway” is a short tune that is a lovely toe-tapper, before “Corpus Christi Bay” slows the album down into the long-standing Earle-meets-Springsteen troubadour style that builds with each verse and gets into your blood by the chorus. Springsteen’s influence circa Tunnel Of Love is quite apparent on “Whenever Kindness Fails”. There’s a bit of humor on the rather brutal but brutally honest “Blow You Away” as it glides along with a Celtic melody nudging it along and Marty Stuart on mandolin.
The highlight of this album, aside from another delicious, earthy and well-crafted “Jesse With The Long Hair”, has to be “Night Right For Love”, a slow down-beaten duet with Maura O’Connell. But “Daddy Had A Buick” is a swing tune that just falls flat extremely fast, best left to the likes of Lyle Lovett. Just when you think the album will be filled with, er, filler, he goes and brings you a dreary, dark and murky murder ballad such as “Here In Arkansas”. He is just as stellar and professional on “So I Can Take My Rest”, which has some pedal steel but is still quite somber and world-weary.
No. 2 Live Dinner was made in 1996 and has all the markings of a live album. It gets off to another fine start with a swinging, roots-meets-honky-tonk “I’m Going To Town”. It’s his ability to paint vivid storylines that makes him so darn appealing, especially on “Gringo Honeymoon”, which brings to mind the Bellamy Brothers during their ‘80s era heyday. The audience obviously was here for more than the conversation as they seem to drown out the singer on “Merry Christmas From The Family” as he talks about mom and dad getting drunk at a rather quirky, Coen Brothers Christmas. Lloyd Maines (Dixie Chick Natalie’s daddy) produced the album but was also present that night for slower gems like “Rollin’ By” and the breezy-ish, Buffett-like “Sonora’s Death Row” which is basically Keen Jr.‘s voice with an acoustic guitar as its foundation.
The second half of the album is more of the same, but particularly great is the straightforward up-tempo and energetic rendition of “Amarillo Highway” that is somewhat like “Six Days On The Road”. Only during a lengthy and rather needless intro into the lengthy, Dylan-esque and fine “The Road Goes On Forever” do things take a downturn. Nonetheless, the “encore” portion shores the album up with the ‘50s-era doo-wop meets roots ditty “Dreadful Selfish Crime”.
The third album is No Kinda Dancer, which is the album that seemed to put Keen Jr.‘s career in motion. But while this album isn’t quite the captivating piece of work that the other two are, the waltz-meets-vaudeville title track makes for a puzzling but pleasing ditty. “The Front Porch Song” is in line with Dylan but the lyrics come across as idiotic as Jimmy Buffett’s. He hits paydirt with the sweet and tender “Between Hello & Goodbye”, the mandolin surpassed only by the harmony vocals of Nanci Griffith. Other tunes such as “Christabel” and “Willie” are ambling rambling singer-songwriter tracks that just manage to get over the quality bar. Keen Jr. improves on this format with the folksy, impressive instrumental “Death Of Tail Fitzsimmons”, which could have been placed earlier in the track listing.
As for the three bonus tracks, “Luann” seems to be head and shoulders above the rest, a slow swaying waltz that lures you in from the opening line. But “The Coldest Day Of Winter” shows just how far Keen Jr. has come by basically staying the same. This trio of albums is rare in that you can listen to all in one sitting without noticing that two hours has passed. It’s a testament to Keen Jr.‘s continuance of making great, wholesome and filling music.