I’m a writer, not a musician. That’s the best way to explain my fascination with country music – specifically, alternative country and the work of singer-songwriters. I’m not much of a fan of that over-produced, impure sound coming out of Nashville the last 10-20 years.
A few years ago, my native-Texan friend, Bob, introduced me to the music of Robert Earl Keen. Texas-born and Texas-bred, Keen’s knack for storytelling outstrips his singing ability, so naturally, I immediately took to his music.
On Tuesday, Keen released his latest album, “Ready for Confetti,” with the pre-released single “I Gotta Go.”
This album has a different feel than Keen’s previous work. The imagery-rich ballads such as the evocative “Black Baldy Stallion” and “I Gotta Go” are still there, but overall, the pace was slower and the mood more subdued. It’s as if Keen, 55, is slowing down after 30 years in the music business, and he thinks the world needs to slow down, too.
The title cut, “Ready for Confetti,” has a Latin flair, and if I knew the steps to one, I might be tempted to do a Latin dance. “I Gotta Go” reminds me the most of his other work. The story of an orphan who steals and gambles his way right into more and more trouble, “I Gotta Go” is a toe-tapping tragedy that will lift your spirits even as the lyrics depress. But who among us hasn’t felt upbeat even when faced with certain death?
I can’t help but think the line “I’m wasting time standing here, I gotta go” is also Keen’s not-so-veiled smirk at our over-caffeinated, texting-addicted, hurried society. This is particularly evident when juxtaposed with the next song on the album, the mellow “Lay Down My Brother.” With a little bit slower tempo, this song seems to be encouraging us to “take it easy, take it slow,” an admonition that might help us all live longer. “Lay Down My Brother” has nice harmonies, which is frankly when Keen sounds the best.
“The Road Goes On and On” is a satisfying insult song that harkens back to one of Keen’s best loved songs “The Road Goes on Forever.” We’ve all encountered phonies who are so full of themselves that we just wanted to cuss. Keen captures the feeling well with such hurtful criticisms as “you’re malicious and downright cruel, superstitious, so uncool,” “you’re a regular jack-in-the-box in your clown suit and your goldilocks” and the coup de gras, “all duded up in your cowboy crocs.” Wow, now that’s a cowboy insult if I ever heard
I’m convinced that “Top Down” is best listened to live. The studio isn’t kind to Keen’s ability to hold pitch, but I admire the fact that it doesn’t sound artificial and over-modulated. Like “The Road Goes On and On,” this jazzy song seems to be poking at the stars who drive around with the “top down” and believe that “everbody’s clapping and it’s all about you.”
If “Top Down” makes you doubt, Keen returns to a familiar sound in “Play a Train Song.” From the opening guitar licks and harmonica strains, you know REK is back on his turf. Anyone familiar with his discography will immediately recognize his nod to the genre of train songs that Keen himself has helped populate over the years with such songs as “Number 9 Coal” and “Whenever Kindness Fails.”
Way back when I worked at The Macon Telegraph, page designer and copy editor Randy Waters and I played a word game we liked to call “Who da’ man?” We would ask each other that question back and forth until those around us demanded we shut up. Well, in “Who Da Man,” Keen turns the question into an adjective as the song proclaims the advantages of being a “Who Da Man,” who is able to evade law enforcement and other life consequences as he somehow sneaks through life.
“Paint the Town Beige” is a rerun from 1993’s “A Bigger Piece of Sky” album. I think Keen repeats the song on this album to tell us that he really has slowed down. Keen seems to be saying with this even more laid back version that he craves the quiet life, and he’s put crazy antics behind him.
The final song, “Soul of Man” evokes images of a men’s quartet in a country church on a dusty central Texas farm-to-market road complete with funeral home fans, men in boots and starched white shirts and women in bonnets. “Soul of Man” is Keen’s take on the hymn, “Where the Soul Never Dies,” which has been recorded by a variety of artists, including the Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs and even Hank Williams Sr. My fondness for traditional hymns makes this a fitting ending to the album in my mind.
Overall, it’s one of Keen’s most understated works, but enjoyable and meaningful if you find yourself feeling wrung out emotionally and stressed from the busyness of life. In the New South, we could all use a little more time to “lay down” and less “I Gotta Go” urgency.
REK may be an acquired taste for those who like good singing, but for the storytellers of the world, enjoy.