When I was a cub reporter at The Macon Telegraph back in the early 1990s, copy editor Randy Waters once gave me a backhanded compliment that has stuck with me:
“Lance, you’re the funniest guy I know who can’t tell a joke.”
Randy was right. I’ve never been good at remembering jokes, but as a middle-aged father of three, I am gaining proficiency in the stock-and-trade of dads everywhere… the dreaded Dad Joke.
To help me in this pursuit, my own father gave me three joke books for Christmas, which I have already begun to study intently, much to my family’s chagrin.
Growing up in church gave me an appreciation for emotional storytelling and the use of humor.
Good preachers have a knack for remembering and telling jokes, both from the pulpit and in social settings. One of the first jokes I ever remember my childhood pastor, Bro. Billy Mauldin, telling went something like this:
A man goes to prison, and the first night while he’s laying in bed contemplating his situation, he hears someone yell out, “44!” Uproarious laughter erupts from the other prisoners.
He thought that was pretty odd. Then he heard someone else yell out, “72!” That was followed by even more laughter.
“What’s going on?” he asked his cellmate.
“Well, we’ve all heard every joke so many times, we’ve given them each a number to make it easier.”
“Oh,” the new prisoner said. “Can I try?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
So he yells out “102!” and the place is dead quiet, save for a few groans. Confused, he looks at his cellmate who is just shaking his head.
“Hey, what happened?”
“Well, some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.”
I puzzled over that joke for a while. Like most kids, I was a literal thinker. I thought it was funny because what made the prisoners laugh was the way the joke teller pronounced the numbers. I didn’t get it until I was in my teens, much older than I should have been to understand a joke as basic as this one.
I don’t remember jokes very well, but this one has stayed with me. It’s both a meta joke — a joke about a joke — a proverb. The truth is, some people can’t tell jokes. Spend two minutes with a comedian you’ve never heard before on YouTube, and you will see what I mean.
Humor is something I’ve always appreciated and tried to bring to my conversations. I hope this year to prove Randy wrong… not by being unfunny but by adding joke-telling to my humor repertoire.
But then again, some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.
What’s your favorite joke? Leave a comment below to share. You can credit the source or rely on the old adage that originality is the ability to forget where you heard it. Clean jokes only, please. This is a family blog.
I have been drawn to writing as a creative activity since childhood.
It started by inventing stories in my head. It grew into imitation when in the 7th grade I read William Faulkner’s 1942 short story “The Bear,” and I wrote my own story of a bear hunt gone awry. In the 8th grade, my classmates and I started a school newspaper to satisfy my itch to try journalism and to make a little money for a class field trip to St. Augustine.
By the time I reached high school, I was involved in a writing circle with friends. We called it “The Story War.” We took turns writing stories about a common set of characters whose adventures intersected and intertwined in ways that tested our creativity and problem solving. Each of us had a main character, and in the pre-internet days, we circulated our stories to each other by reproducing them on dot matrix printers and sending them through the U.S. mail. There were four of us in the group — two in Florida, Dwayne and me, and two in Texas, Fred and Cliff. It occupied hours of my imaginings and fed my love of storytelling and creative expression.
In high school, I gravitated toward newspaper journalism as a way to earn a living as a writer. In the unsophisticated way a teenager thinks about careers, I knew I loved to write but thought writing books could be an undependable source of income. According to my logic, writing for newspapers would be a steady gig, and I could write books on the side.
After my introduction to journalism in 8th grade, I joined the high school yearbook staff in 10th grade and took journalism as an independent study in the 11th. The summer after my junior year, I applied and was selected for an internship at our local newspaper, the now defunct Lake Wales Daily Highlander. Each year The Highlander hired a rising senior to write a weekly column and help out around the newsroom as the intern’s schedule and skill allowed.
I loved writing the column and took it very seriously. I loved trying out the SAT words I was learning. Some of my early columns required readers to have a dictionary at their elbow in order to make sense of what I was trying to say. The high school administration was also not particularly fond of my more aggressive attempts at satire.
I was called to meet with the principal after one column in which I deployed hyperbole to describe the construction projects going on in the buildings during the school day. I posited that projects of such scale would cause much less disruption during the summer. When I sat down across from Mr. Windham, the principal, I saw my column on the desk in front of him, marked up in red. He took me through each of my factual errors. I don’t remember printing a retraction, but I do remember learning that a weekly column came with power and responsibility.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at The Highlander full time. I mostly did clerical writing such as obituaries, but when the news reporters were on vacation, I covered the police beat, county court and city budget hearings. Because I enjoyed sports, I latched onto opportunities in that genre, covering Lake Wales Little League as closely as if it were Major League Baseball, and endured the editing supervision of sports editor Bob Perkins. He once told me while editing a particularly egregious story in which I erroneously substituted “aloud” for “allowed” throughout to describe how many runs a pitcher “allowed,” that “This isn’t writing, it’s typing!”
My time at The Highlander gave me an unmatched experience for someone my age, and by the time I arrived at college to officially earn a degree in journalism, I had already tackled a number of challenges many of my peers wouldn’t experience until their senior internship or even after they started their careers. I began writing for the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, immediately, and found myself in a Reporting 1 class my freshman year.
In addition to the writing I did for The Trop, as it was affectionately known, I also served as a peer tutor at the university’s Writing Center. All students who tested into the remedial English classes were required to attend a writing lab one hour a week at the Writing Center, and the tutors led the labs. It was more than a little awkward when I, as an 18-year-old freshman, handed out and graded assignments from 21-year-old upperclassmen. Working at the Writing Center solidified my knowledge of the rules of grammar and gave me an even stronger foundation for writing clean copy and editing others’ work.
During my time at Troy I also developed the habit of journaling. I incorporated it as a part of my daily Bible reading and prayer time. I have never gone back to read those early attempts to process my understanding of scripture or work through crises of faith, but the practice is still part of my daily routine to this day.
My journalism career progressed from The Daily Highlander and Tropolitan to The Destin Log and The Macon Telegraph before I moved into higher education and nonprofit communications. During those years, I had largely abandoned the dream of creative writing, but in the summer of 2004 after completing an MBA, I felt the creative itch return.
I had been ignoring the whole reason I had chosen newspapers and communications as a career in the first place. So during our vacation that summer at Santa Rosa Beach, I spent an hour or so each day working on a novel. I wrote the first five chapters of my work, tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and reconnected with my love of writing.
I finished the first draft in 2009, and at more than 140,000 words was too intimidated to do the work necessary to edit it down to the more appropriate 100,000 words or less most first-time authors get when they publish. I was also reading about the publishing industry trying to implement the advice of launching my own platform. The conventional wisdom of the publishing industry was that you would be more desirable to agents and publishers if you had a built-in following who would buy your books.
So in March of 2011 I launched this web log, or blog as it is more commonly known. I called it “New South Essays” and tried to brand myself as a commentator on life in the modern South. Because I felt that my novel was a work of contemporary Southern fiction, I thought this would give me access to the readers who might be susceptible to buying my book when the time came.
For three years I published a New South Essay each week. In August 2012 when I went to work for Georgia Tech, learning to communicate in a technical field and managing a large staff sapped all of my energy for writing. Plus, the demands of a growing family caused me to lose touch with my zeal for expression again. I put the blog on hiatus in the fall of 2014, and once again strayed from my love of writing.
During my time at Georgia Tech I satisfied my itch to write by taking on freelance writing assignments for Baptist publisher, Smyth & Helwys. I wrote several units of Sunday School lessons for its Formations line, devotions for its annual Reflections guide and started a blog called “A View from the Pew” which provided a lay person’s perspective on church life. With such a demanding day job, my writing dwindled to once a month, and my creativity shriveled.
I finally figured out my pattern in the spring of 2020 when the outbreak of COVID-19 rearranged our lives. No longer commuting two hours a day to downtown and back for my job with the University System of Georgia, I found I had more time in the mornings to write again. I was inspired to re-launch New South Essays on a monthly schedule, alternating writing weeks among A View from the Pew, New South Essays and the re-write on my novel. And when Carla gave me the unique anniversary gift in May of weekly memoir prompt Storyworth, I found myself once filled with excitement and energy for the written word.
What started as a spark of creativity has grown into quite a collection: two blogs, hundreds of newspaper articles, thousands of news releases and promotional pieces, speeches, media statements and an unpublished novel. Writing is a passion that draws me back whenever I wander away from it.
Here’s hoping I don’t lose sight of that truth again.
My life is full and has surpassed my highest expectations in profound ways.
Carla is a beautiful person who chooses to share life with me through mundane, jubilant, and challenging times. Barron is a creative, goal-oriented and industrious son who shows gratitude and kindness. Harris is bright, engaging and is committing himself to a life of service to address societal problems. Carlton is finding himself in song and drama, flashing a keen wit and possessing insight and awareness beyond his years.
I wished for such a wonderful family, but they have exceeded my loftiest dreams.
The biggest difference between my expectations for life and reality is my career. The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” had different answers at various points in my life. I went through a phase in adolescence when I adopted my father’s dreams of becoming a fighter pilot and having a post-military career flying commercial jets for an airline.
Well into adulthood, I wondered if I was called to local church ministry. I sincerely and diligently prayed for a revelation of that calling and have always been involved in church as a layperson performing every possible duty.
As early as the 7th grade, I envisioned a life of writing novels. I believed that newspaper journalism could pay the bills while I pursued writing books, which was less financially secure. Writing led me to pursue a high school internship at our local paper, The Daily Highlander, and once I began to understand how that world operated, I held ambitions of one day rising through the ranks of reporter to editor and running a newspaper.
That goal served me well through high school and college. I became editor of the Troy University school paper, The Tropolitan, in college as a sophomore and worked internships at The Destin Log, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau and the National Journalism Center. A difficult job market in 1991-92 forced me to seriously question my career choice as I unsuccessfully interviewed for reporter jobs at The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, and The Huntsville Times.
I finally landed an interview at The Macon Telegraph in Middle Georgia, and the rest, as they say, was history. During my seven plus years at The Telegraph there were pivot points along the way that forced me to recalibrate my expectations and amend my goals. When I graduated from Troy University with a double major in print journalism and political science, I saw myself returning to Washington to cover politics. I thought I could one day work my way back to Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau if I went to a Knight Ridder paper, excelled and earned a promotion to fill an opening in the company’s high-profile D.C. office.
I held onto that notion for about four years as I worked as a general assignment features writer. Editorial page editor Ron Woodgeard asked me to contribute to a series he was editing about Georgians on the Titanic, and during our closer work together, he asked me about my career goals. I told him I wanted to cover politics in Washington. He rather bluntly informed me I was in the wrong place to do that. He said if I wanted to cover politics in Washington, I should already be in Washington. I told him my plan, and he explained that political journalism didn’t work that way.
As I puzzled over Ron’s revelation, my fellow church member, Larry Brumley, who ran the University Relations office at Mercer University, asked if I would be interested in applying for a media relations representative vacancy on his staff. I had never seriously considered working in public relations, often deriding the PR majors in college as “paid liars.” With a chance to cover the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, I told Larry the opportunities on my immediate horizon were too good to pass up. I remained committed to journalism.
As difficult as it was to hear, Ron Woodgeard had been right. Career panic set in, and I felt an urgency to move on from Macon. But by that point, my social life began to factor into my life’s plan. Carla and I had started dating, and our relationship was growing serious. Just a few months into our relationship, covering the Olympics combined with a newsroom shakeup by incoming Editor-in-Chief Cecil Bentley proved to be my opportunity to shift from general assignment features to the City Hall beat. It was my first shot at writing about politics at any level since college.
I thoroughly enjoyed covering Macon and Bibb County government and quickly acclimated to working nights attending council and committee meetings. I dedicated myself to increasing my profile at the paper and winning reporting recognitions. The awards never came, and though I covered the beat diligently, I exposed no major scoops or scandals. Ron’s words were becoming clear to me. The way to make it to the Capitol did not go through Macon City Hall.
Carla and I were not married long when the statehouse reporting job opened at the Knight Ridder-owned newspaper in Columbia, S.C., oddly titled The State. I interviewed, and it looked promising enough that Carla and I spent the day driving through neighborhoods there getting a vision for what life could look like for us if we started over somewhere else. The job evaporated, however, when the editor I was interviewing with gave up his desk job, returned to reporting, and took the position.
My goal then shifted from leaving Macon and covering D.C. politics to moving up the ranks and becoming an editor. A new, more aggressive managing editor had been hired, and he began pushing me to “leverage the facts” of the stories I was covering at City Hall to make them seem more scandalous. I wanted no part of that. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to our Warner Robins Bureau where I was assigned the Robins Air Force Base beat.
I didn’t mind the half-hour commute from Macon, and I found the base infinitely fascinating. When units at Robins started deploying on missions over Kosovo and to Kuwait, I was able to write stories with impact and emotion. I built solid relationships with the public affairs officers on base and really took to the assignments.
After about 18 months, more newsroom transitions opened an assistant metro editor position back in the main office. I applied and earned the spot, working side-by-side with my former features editor, James Palmer. We supervised the entire news reporting staff, and I began to see the writing on the wall. When I first arrived in Macon, there had been six such editors – a metro editor, two assistant metro editors, night editor, business editor, and region editor. There was just James and me at that point, and I knew more cuts were on the way. I began to seriously question if newspapers were a sustainable way to earn a living. I had always wanted to get my master’s degree, which seemed impossible with my schedule. I knew I would have to leave journalism if I wanted to further my education and set myself up for career advancement. I had put so many eggs in the journalism basket it was hard to figure out what was next.
One of my duties was editing the weekly business tabloid that published on Mondays. A feature of that publication was a weekly column written by Mercer University business faculty members. The column was supposed to be submitted by 5 p.m. on Thursday, so it could be edited on Friday and laid out before the end of the day. We printed the business tab on Saturday when the presses were available. The Mercer professors consistently missed their deadline and submitted work that required a lot of editing. Even though we didn’t pay for the content, the columns were more trouble than they were worth. I called Mercer’s public relations contact for the business school and told her we were canceling the arrangement. She begged for mercy and asked for me to come by for a meeting. It got me out of the office, so I was amenable.
The meeting went fine. The PR rep, Jennie Treby, let the assistant vice president, Ben McDade, do all the talking. In exchange for one more chance to continue the columns, Ben promised each submission would be on time, the right length, and free from errors. I had no reason to deny the request, so I agreed to continue the columns. When the cordial meeting ended, Jennie left, and Ben asked if I could stay a minute or two longer. He closed the door and told me that when his predecessor, Larry Brumley, left Mercer to work as the head of university relations at Baylor University, Larry told Ben he should hire me. I was flattered but shocked. I still was not ready to leave journalism. Ben said he had an opening and would like for me to think about applying. I told him I would.
Over the next several weeks, I did much soul searching. Leaving journalism was more than a job change, it was an identity crisis. I viewed journalism as a calling and had even served on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was an advocate for free speech and the First Amendment. I believed public relations practitioners were less than credible, and they mostly just sat around and waited on reporters to call. While I considered the opportunity, conditions at The Telegraph took an even greater toll. The problematic managing editor left, and James and I felt the crush of even more responsibility. I worked past 10 p.m. five days a week and was even coming in on Sundays after church to get the Monday paper out. Carla was in graduate school, driving two nights a week from Macon to Lawrenceville, about a two-hour journey one way, to take classes in the University of Georgia’s part-time Master of Social Work program. We were newlyweds in duration of marriage only. We barely saw each other during the week, and the stress of so much work, school and time apart had us seeing a therapist in our first year of marriage.
One difficult week of working at least 12 hours a day plus Sunday gave me the clarity I needed to make the career move and shift my ambitions. I took Ben up on his offer and left newspaper journalism behind. When I submitted my resignation, Cecil asked if there was anything they could do to keep me or if this was “a lifestyle decision.” I told him it was definitely the latter and didn’t look back.
The next phase of my life and career was uncharted territory.
From my earliest days as a rookie features writer at The Macon Telegraph in 1992, I heard reporters talk about canoeing the Ocmulgee River and writing about it for the paper.
I was young and foolish enough to attempt it.
In the late summer of 1993 I began the ambitious project of paddling the entire 255 miles of the Ocmulgee River from its origin at the base of Lloyd Shoals Dam at Lake Jackson to the confluence with the Oconee River forming the Altamaha River near Lumber City.
The grand adventure would have been to canoe it from start to finish in one multi-day trip, camping along the route. If you figure the average person can cover 10-15 miles of river a day, you can quickly see how impractical that was. I could not put my life on hold nor would my editors at The Telegraph let me out of my other duties for three weeks.
As I puzzled over the logistics, the Central Georgia River Runners canoeing and kayaking club learned about my ambitious project and one of its members, Joe Beall, took an interest. A former naval aviator and graduate of the Citadel, Joe was single, in his early 40s, and had a lot of time on his hands. He loved kayaking and history, and his unquenchable curiosity provided the impetus and skills I needed to make the journey a reality.
Joe became my unofficial guide. We spent hours together pouring over topographical maps and looking at ways to break the trip into segments. Being a young, single guy myself, I was willing to give weekends and occasional weekday trips to the journey so as not to interfere with my regular workload. We divided the entire project into 10-15 mile excursions, invited the River Runners to join us when they could, and began the quest.
The Ocmulgee River, which derives its name from the Hichti words “oki” (water) and “molki” (bubbling or boiling), acts like two different rivers. The upper Ocmulgee above the Fall Line, which runs just north of Macon, is bubbling like the mountain rivers and streams in north Georgia and Tennessee. There are shoals and rapids through which the water moves quickly and can prove challenging for inexperienced paddlers like I was. Truth be told, I had to be rescued several times after falling in when my canoe was toppled by a small rapid. The River Runners called the shameful act “swimming,” and even devoted a column in their monthly newsletter called “Seen Swimming” to call out those who turned over during an outing.
“Seen Swimming” included my name several times the first few trips because I was so inexperienced. I made the beginner’s mistake of sitting up too high and grabbing the gunnels when I started to lose my balance. I had to learn to fight those instincts, get low in a canoe, and keep paddling to maintain my balance. I think the River Runners drew straws to see who would take me in their canoe those first few trips because they didn’t want to be “seen swimming” along with me.
South of the Fall Line as Georgia’s Piedmont region gives way to the Coastal Plain, the Ocmulgee spreads out, slows down and becomes a wide, meandering river, like a smaller version of the Mississippi. We did several of the southern segments in multi-day, overnight trips camping on the shoreline or on sandbars. Particularly near the end, we tried to cover as much of the river as we could with each trip.
North of Macon, the river ran fairly straight, but south of town, there were stretches where the Ocmulgee was winding and serpentine. Even with Joe’s navigational skills, it was sometimes hard to calculate the distance of a trip from a topographical map.
Such was the case on an early spring day when Joe and I had hoped to paddle a section south of Macon originating near Bond Swamp that would end up at the Bullard Landing public boat ramp near Dry Branch in Twiggs County.
There were several factors that freighted the day with stress. First, we needed to have The Telegraph’s photographer with us on more of the trips to capture some good imagery to accompany my story. Maryann Bates and I had worked well together on multiple projects, and she had expressed interest. Our plan was to go back after the story was outlined and get photos from the bank, but we did need her to join us on a couple of the trips. We didn’t want to risk her equipment, so picking an easier segment without rapids or shoals seemed ideal.
Maryann was like a big sister to me. Older and wiser, she had taken me under her wing at the paper, dispensing good natured teasing and wisdom in equal measure. She and her husband, Larry, were good friends, and at times I felt like I was part of their family, which back then included three kids. Maryann had commitments that I didn’t, so finding a day to be on the river proved challenging.
When we paddled a section of the river, we had to start the day by setting the shuttle, which meant leaving the canoes and kayaks at the put-in point, driving to the take-out with two vehicles so you could leave one to get you back to your other vehicle at the end of the day, and driving back to the boats at the put-in. Maryann drove a Nissan Pathfinder, so we left the canoe and kayak at the put-in and planned to leave her truck at the take-out. The last half mile of the road to Bullard Landing was red clay, and recent rains left it slick. Maryann handled it well, but we were both tense from the slipping and sliding to get to the takeout.
Once we put in and found our pace, and the trip became pleasant. I could hear Maryann’s camera clicking away, and the warming sunshine eased our minds. That section was somewhat remote, but there was ample evidence we were south of an urban area. We found pockets along the route where fallen trees created eddies that held captive all manner of detritus, including basketballs, styrofoam ice chests, and other garbage that washed into the river from the streets of Macon.
After a full eight hours of paddling, Maryann began to grow anxious about the time. She had a family commitment that evening and needed to be home by 7 p.m. Based on Joe’s calculations, we were doing a 13-mile stretch and should have been off the river well before nightfall. The Ocmulgee’s twists and turns proved deceptive, though, and the sunset, though beautiful, fueled our nervousness about the time.
Finding a takeout, even a well-marked public boat ramp, can be challenging if you’ve never before approached it from the water. It’s easy to miss landmarks because it all looks so different from the river. In the dark, it’s impossible to find your take out. Missing it compounds the aggravation. You eventually paddle so far down river that you realize you must have passed it. You find a spot to get out, leave your canoe where you can get back to it, and walk back up the bank through trees and thickets to where you think your vehicle should be. It can add hours to your excursion.
Maryann’s tight schedule upped the stakes of finding the take out on the first try. With daylight fading, we studied the left bank as we rounded each bend hoping for a glimpse of the Bullard Landing boat ramp. We had been on the river in excess of 10 hours as the dim light of dusk completely faded.
Joe had been apologizing for an hour when Maryann finally broke.
“SHUT UP, JOE!” she yelled at him, unable to contain her frustration.
He wisely held his tongue as we kept paddling in the dark, getting as close to the left bank as possible risking getting hung up in a fallen tree.
Just when I gave up all hope, I heard the sound of a boat motor in the distance behind us. As it grew louder, I turned to look over my shoulder to see the beam of a spotlight scanning the shoreline. Their light hit our canoe, and they called out to us.
“Hey, y’all know where the Bullard Landing boat ramp is?” a friendly male voice called from behind the light.
“We think so. We’ve been trying to get to it,” Joe answered.
“Y’all need some help?”
“Yes! Please!” Maryann answered.
Illuminated by a lantern and the spotlight, our saviors appeared to be two guys in a jon boat. Whether they were fishermen who had been caught on the river by the darkness or deer hunters looking to do some illegal “shining,” we did not know… or care.
They threw us a rope, which Maryann tied to the front of our canoe. They continued sweeping the bank for the boat ramp as they gently accelerated, pulling us safely behind them. Joe followed, pushing his tired arms and shoulders well past exhaustion.
In just a few minutes, they spotted the ramp. When the light reflected off Maryann’s Pathfinder, I exhaled in relief.
Such was life on the river. For the eight months it took us to paddle the Ocmulgee, I experienced an array of feelings: the ecstasy of seeing nature’s beauty, exhaustion from effort, fear of noises in the night, inconvenience of logistical mistakes and accomplishment when each stretch was completed. We had other mishaps. I even turned over our canoe one more time on a more southerly segment when we took a high water cut through and got pinned against a tree trunk. But that night in the darkness, searching desperately for Bullard Landing, I was rescued and I was grateful.
The only clue I have to the identity of our rescuers is a scrap of paper torn from the small manilla envelopes Telegraph photographers used to put their film in for processing. It bears the names “Rusty Evans” and “Dave” in ballpoint pen. There’s a phone number, and the words “coon hunter” and “airboat Bullard’s Landing” written under them.
Rusty and Dave didn’t make it into my story that ran over two successive weekends in The Telegraph June 12 and June 19, 1994. But their rescue has been forever imprinted in my memory.
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.