T for Texas. T for Tennessee.
— “Blue Yodel No. 1” by Jimmie Rogers
Robert Earl Keen is the quintessential Texas musician. The city of Houston has honored him with a Robert Earl Keen Day, and Keen has set songs not only in the state’s major metropolises, but in midsized towns like Amarillo and Corpus Christi and nameless Lone Star podunk locales as well. When something bad happens to a character in one of Keen’s songs, the person is usually somewhere other than Texas — like Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arizona. Keen’s a good ol’ Texas homeboy, so why did he decide to record his latest effort live in Tennessee?
Beats me. The crowd at the Ryman, the former home of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, certainly likes him. They loudly cheer, clap, and sing along during every song and shout Keen’s name between tunes like they’re calling for a coach to put in a star player seated on the bench during a basketball game. The audience even goes nuts and vigorously participates during an Xmas song, “Merry Christmas From the Family”, when it’s not even Thanksgiving. The concert took place on November 14, 2004.
One would think Nashville had enough local talent so that Keen wouldn’t be such a big deal. In many ways, as a Texas troubadour, Keen is the anti-Nashville country singer. He ain’t slick. He rocks his country music hard. He doesn’t feel the need to wear a cowboy hat. Maybe that’s why the crowd likes Keen. He shows him the country’s other side.
Whatever the reason, Live at the Ryman captures Keen on a good night performing before an enthusiastic crowd. However, Keen’s songs aren’t necessarily improved when played before a live audience. He’s a storyteller whose lyrics narrate a tale. Giving Keen and his bandmates a chance to stretch out their instrumental licks tends to bog down the action of the material. The disc has a should-have-been-there quality — as if it would serve as a wonderful souvenir of the night but be of less interest to the casual Keen fan. Further compounding this feeling is the fact that this is Keen’s fourth live album. While he is a dynamic live performer, Keen’s no James Brown. Four live discs seems excessive, especially as there is no unreleased material on the new one.
Many of the songs on Live at the Ryman, such as “Farm Fresh Onions”, “What I Really Mean”, and “Furnace Fan”, come from his most recent recordings. He also plays some of his best known numbers, such as “I’m Coming Home”, “Shades of Gray”, and “Gringo Honeymoon”. Keen and the band perform all of the songs with a head full of steam. They briskly attack each tune, feeding off the energy of the crowd, giving it back and then some. Keen’s passion works best when he restrains himself, such as on his rendition of Jimmy Driftwood’s gospel-inflected “Long Chain”. Keen bites off the words and spits them out. The results are more mixed when Keen and company just let themselves loose. The live audience obviously enjoys it, but this comes across as just noodling on the disc. “The Road Goes on Forever” does seem to take forever and goes on for more than 11 minutes
Keen knows how to have fun and the importance of being happy. The best song on the disc, “Feelin’ Good Again” describes a magic night at the bar when everything seems to happen just right. One’s favorite band is playing. Friends and lovers are present. There’s money in one’s pocket. And when you catch the eye of the person you most want to see, she breaks into a grin. The Ryman may be a bigger venue than the one Keen describes in his song, but it sounds like many in the crowd had a great time that night. This document provides evidence for those in attendance. The rest of us will have to wish we were there.
Robert Earl Keen – Live on Austin City Limits