Would you believe it? I was in Philadelphia and walked into this tavern and there was Hank Williams performing, not the ghost of Hank or some Hank imitator, but the real Hank Williams dressed in drag and made up with bright red lipstick. Hank sure did sound good. His songs of love, pain and human imperfection really got to me. But the rest of the show wasn’t that interesting. I fell asleep and when I awoke I remembered when I was 16 years old and in love with a young divorcee without commitment issues. We used to drive in her VW bug and sing along with the one eight-track we had, Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits. “Hey, hey, good looking,” we crooned, “How ‘bout cooking something up with me?” Then I remembered where I was. Hank was drinkin’ a double shot and talking with a buxom waitress about the freaks that have taken over country music. I drank some more, watched some baseball on TV, and when Hank was done and the game was over, I asked the waitress to call me a cab. She offered me a ride and off we went in her VW bug through the streets of Brotherly Love.
This wasn’t a dream. It’s a condensed version of what happens in the song, “The Great Hank”, on Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen’s latest release What I Really Mean. As the synopsis reveals, Keen has a great imagination. He also really knows how to tell a story. This tune, like Keen’s best-known song “The Road Goes on Forever”, is a tall tale wrapped up in signifying details that compels the listener to wonder what will happen next while one imagines what the hell is going on. Keen talks his story more than sings it, while band member Marty Muse’s steel guitar wails in the background and the rest of the group (Rick Brotherton, guitar; Bill Whitbeck, bass; Tom Van Schaik, drums) provides a steady beat and instrumental commentary as the soundtrack for the surreal happenings.
Keen understands how to make the weird seem normal and the normal seem weird, even when he’s telling a fable of sex, corruption, and homicide that features woodland animals (“Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear”). He follows in the great American droll tradition of Mark Twain and John Hartford. Keen also knows how to write a love song. He sweetly sings the title song, an ode to his wife, who he dearly misses while away from home as a traveling musician. What Keen really means, he tells his spouse as he recounts his road adventures, is that he wishes she was there with him. Keen also understands heartbreak, as evidenced by the anguished “Broken End of Love” and that love can drive one crazy, as on “For Love”, the opening cut that features a chorus of “I did it all for love my friend / For love I did it all” as spoken by people who have murdered the objects of their affections.
Musically, Keen is all over the map. His gospel-tinged “Long Chain”, the Celtic-flavored “The Traveling Storm”, and the Tex-Mex sound of “A Border Tragedy” reveal his breadth. “A Border Tragedy”, with its Mariachi horns and country legend Ray Price’s cameo vocals on “The Streets of Laredo” mid-song, is worthy of special mention for Keen’s musical adventurousness and lyrical efforts. This tale of what happened after hours in an alley behind a cantina works as a mini-Spaghetti Western because of Keen’s ear and eye for grubby details. One can almost feel the heat, smell the vomit, and see the faces of the seedy characters.
This is Keen’s 11th album, and while he may not be as famous as his old college housemate Lyle Lovett, the two mine similar musical territory. These friends from the Lone Star state share much in common: the ability to tell a good story, a peculiar sense of humor, a love for the weird and particular. Lovett may have achieved more acclaim, but Keen has his champions, too—including Lovett. What I Really Mean should win Keen even more admirers.