This is a collection of songs from three old Sugar Hill albums by Robert Earl Keen, the funny witty soulful country music singer/songwriter. Well, more songwriter than singer, I guess. Unlike his college buddy Lyle Lovett, Keen is never going to get away with cover versions of other people’s stuff — the man’s voice will never set the world on fire. It works for his songs, because he understands and accepts and works with and in some cases plays up his limitations.
And “country” is somewhat of a misnomer as well. This isn’t really so much Country Music as it is Texas Music, which is to say that it’s more consciously aware of country’s blues and folk and soul and Latin influences than is most Nashville music these days. And that it’s funnier and weirder than most Nashville music too. And more “literate” in its lyrical content. And less hooky and less luscious and more self-satisfied and not quite as comforting, come to think of it, and not as rocking as a lot of the stuff that’s been on the radio lately, your Montgomery Gentry and your Brooks and Dunn and what have you.
But there’s a certain Tejanisme to it all, a storytelling genius and a musical inclusiveness following the straight line from Marty Robbins to Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver and Doug Sahm all the way through modern masters like Joe Ely and Guy Clark and that Lovett character and the Robison brothers (Charlie and Bruce, who are married to and write songs for the Dixie Chicks, who belong on this list too) and the list, like the party, never ends. You don’t need an operatic voice to be a Texas Music star, nor do you have to pick a banjo faster than anyone else, nor clog up your songs with so much sentimentality that other people get sick on it all. All you need to do is write really great songs and sing ’em like you mean ’em. And, probably, have a mystical streak a mile wide and a vocabulary bigger than you need and a fuck ’em all attitude and a willingness to party till the clouds part for either the rapture or the most recent tornado. Oh, and you gotta have a fiddle in the band.
Robert Earl Keen respects the traditions of his home state. The songs on The Party Never Ends are really strong, really wild and wonderful, and still down to earth somehow; he is saved from his slight pretentions by his good intentions, and even the most mystical things here are grounded in the realities of the moment. Take “Mariano”, a moody piece about a worker on Keen’s narrator’s farm. There’s no real narrative motion in the song, just a reflection about a really hard worker who goes off at night and stares off to the south. Keen’s lyrics are poetry when he gets like this, all Transcendentalist and Dylanesque: “I watch him close, he works just like a piston in an engine / He only stops to take a drink and smoke a cigarette / And when the day is ended, I look outside my window / There, on the horizon, Mariano’s silhouette.” The song, if it is about anything, is about the narrator’s vision of Mariano’s family back home in Mexico, with their “skin as brown as potter’s clay” waiting for his letters full of “colored figures he cuts from strings of paper” and American dollars. The music doesn’t really “go” anywhere either, choosing to loop back around in a folk pattern, all acoustic guitar and mournful violin, not even changing when Mariano is, devastatingly, caught by the border patrol and sent back to Mexico. Keen’s voice refuses to crack, and it hits harder that way.
Keen, thank Sam Bowie, isn’t inclined this way very often. “The Road Goes on Forever”, also taken from his 1989 album West Textures, is a thwarted-crime piece about two losers on the run after a last unfair deal goes wrong, and it’s fine, but the other two songs from that record are much more indicative of what’s going on here: “The Five Pound Bass” is a bluegrass romp of a fishing story with a delicious payoff: “I see a ripple / I hear a splash / Lord have mercy / It’s a five pound bass!” Keen’s exultant yell, “Oh, it’s as big as a god damned baby!” is not something you’re going to hear on a lot of other country records, although it should be. And the fourth song off this album, “It’s the Little Things”, takes as its subject the annoyances of domestic life, but with a fun little bitterness that all the Brad Paisleys in the world will never touch: “It’s the way you stroke my hair when I lay sleeping / It’s the way you tell me things that I don’t know / It’s the way that you remember I came home late for dinner / Eleven months and fourteen days ago.” When Keen is on fire, he’s on fire. This is the best comedy album of the year.
Keen’s sense of intelligent humor is probably brought forth on the cuts from The Live Album, from 1989, where it’s just him and a bass player and a fiddle player (the great Jonathan Yudkin, who also plays on the West Textures cuts) and an audience hanging on Keen’s every syllable. He turns “The Front Porch Song”, whose subject is somehow the transmogrification of a house’s front porch into all of Texan and human endeavor (it starts out, strangely, as a Hereford bull, and goes on to become a plate of enchiladas and his landlord and a whole bunch of other stuff), into a hilarious tale about how he and Lovett (the song’s co-writer) used to sit on their front porch in their underwear on Sunday mornings when they were in college, playing gospel music for the “Presmyterians” getting out of the church across the street. If it seems like he can’t do all that in six and a half minutes, then you just don’t know Robert Earl Keen’s easy way with an audience, or a story, or a sneaky country song.
He’s just as funny on “The Bluegrass Widow”, a song he made up out of the titles of all the other bluegrass songs anyone’s ever heard, which he narrates in the context of the bluegrass band he was in for a few weeks as a younger man, hopped up on “cheap amphetamines” so they could play faster than everyone else. And “Copenhagen” is a hoot, a great song about how chewing tobacco can pretty much end every relationship ever.
The other six songs here are taken from Gringo Honeymoon. This 1994 record (which is far from lost — four copies of it are still in my neighborhood indie record store) is probably the most serious of the three here collected, contributing as it does “I’m Comin’ Home” and “Think It Over One Time”, which are as adorable and insubstantial as you might think. He wasn’t going for Deep so much on this record as he was for Populism; “Barbeque” is about barbeque, and “Gringo Honeymoon” is about a gringo honeymoon. The best tune here is “Merry Christmas From the Family”, which contains every single thing that is Robert Earl Keen all condensed into five minutes. It’s got the funny stuff (their shopping list: “We need some ice and an extension cord / A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites / A box of tampons and some Marlboro Lights”) and the all-inclusive worldview (“Little sister brought her new boyfriend / He was a Mexican / We didn’t know what to think of him / Till he sang “Feliz Navidad”) and the gentle mocking of and full-on embrace of Texas life (“When they tried to plug their motor home in / They blew our Christmas lights”) and it’s all there and it’s all beautiful and it’s all somehow sad too.
If there is a clunker here, it’s “Dreadful Selfish Crime”. This song would be just okay if it was maybe four minutes long, but at almost twice that, it tests the patience, especially placed as early in the album as it is. It’s a momentum killer, and it is probably only included to pacify those members of the REK cult who think that his longer “serious” stuff is better than his jokey stuff. But don’t get turned off by this skippable song; I forgive him it. Then again, I’m a member of that cult, as are a lot of deathly-hip musicians. Hell, even Montgomery Gentry do a killer version of “Merry Christmas From the Family”.