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Keen goes the distance

By Brian Wahlert, November 1998

Texans have long revered Robert Earl Keen as one of the deities of Texas roots music, but he has never garnered the same rabid following outside of the Lone Star State.

That began to change last year, however, when his "Picnic" spent six weeks atop the Gavin Americana chart. Now Keen is looking to continue that success with "Walking Distance," his second Arista Austin album after a long stretch on Sugar Hill.

The new album and its predecessor must come as a surprise to Keen's long-time fans. A graduate of Texas A & M University, he has traditionally been a favorite of the college fraternity crowd who, along with Keen himself, lived the lyric of one of his best-known songs, "The road goes on forever, but the party never ends."

But Keen, 42, now has a young daughter, and as he matures as a person and songwriter, he's moving away from the sing-along party songs that made him famous and toward a more folky story-telling style.

The new album, co-produced by Keen and Gurf Morlix (known for his work with Lucinda Williams), has a much more acoustic feel than Keen's earlier work, and the songwriting is often contemplative.

The lyrics of the first cut, "Down That Dusty Trail," set the tone for the rest of the album. Each verse summarizes a phase of Keen's life, from the boy "making friends and having fun" to the young man "getting high and chasing love" to the more grown-up man "making sure I'm staying true to my friends and the ones I love."

Keen explains it by saying, "It was an encapsulating piece that says, 'This is where I was, this is where I was more recently, and this is where I am today.'"

Many of his fans, however, are still living the second verse of that song, so Keen is torn in two directions. On the one hand, he wants to grow as a songwriter and tackle the issues important to him today, but on the other, he has a grass-roots following of college kids who want more songs like "The Road Goes on Forever" (actuall written by Joe Ely) and "Merry Christmas to the Family," Keen's trailer-park Christmas carol.

"Sometimes when you have that all in mind, it makes it difficult," Keen says. "You're kind of wondering, 'Is this uptempo enough?' or 'Is this positive enough?' or something...But this one, I just dropped any idea of trying to second-guess anything and just wrote to make myself happyŠ"I think I've gone from being the party captain on stage to where people come to the show and they're not just there to have me tell some amusing anecdote and play some funny song but to hear the whole thing."

"I have a broad spectrum of fansŠIt's just like a Milton Bradley game - it's from 8 to 80, from all walks of life, and I think that's because I don't just stick to one emotion or one theme. I bounce around. Writing songs is my only creative outlet...so I use it as a form of therapy for myself, so consequently, I get all kinds of emotional deliveries and descriptions."

The emotions on this album certainly run the gamut. "Feelin' Good Again" perfectly captures the warm glow of the simple pleasures in life.

Keen says, "I just started out in a place, which just happened to be my hometown and just wrote about that feeling, about how it's just so good to see old friends and when you think you're out of money, you've actually got a few bucks in your pocket, and everything just works out."

Perhaps the secret to Keen's songwriting greatness is his use of imagery. Except for "I'll Be Here for You," a straightforward country love song, Keen's writing doesn't just deal in emotions. It deals in vivid pictures, provoking strong emotional reactions in the listener.

"My favorite band was playin' an Otis Redding song/When they sang the chorus, everybody sang along," Keen sings in "Feelin' Good Again."

"I'm a believer in some intricate description about the settings because I think setting really affects how people react. If I create the setting, it's much easier for me to predict or to chronicle what the character will do, so that's how I write a lot of songs. I create a setting and create a character, and then I start working on the characterization."

Nowhere does Keen realize setting and character as fully as in the "Road to No Return" trilogy. "Carolina" opens the trilogy with the story of a fugitive in love with a woman named Lily who leaves him. After he wrote the song, Keen was so taken with this character that he wrote two more songs about him and a verse-and-chorus theme that opens and closes the trilogy.

"I wrote the 'Carolina' song first," Keen says, "And when I got to the end, I realized I wanted the character to keep moving, and I wanted him to get away and something else to happen. So at that point then I went back and wrote the little 'Road to Nowhere' little theme thingŠ

"Sometimes in some people's lives, they get to a point where there's no way of going back ever. For whatever reason, there's no way of being able to return. So I could see that this person could never return to where he started out, so I just took him on to the end, where he has gotten away obviously, and he's no longer being sought by the law and everything, but he's stuck with his own conscience and his own thoughts and dreams."

By the closing song, "Still Without You," the man is completely isolated and alone. "I'm so sad I don't know what to do without you," Keen sings in the chorus. The utter melancholy of the song stands in sharp contrast to the warmth of "Feelin' Good Again."

"I feel like as a songwriter, you try to tap into the different emotions that you have in life, and part of it is, there's good times and bad times. And that particular trilogy is actually an answer to something that always drives me crazy in anything from really good literature to the TV movie of the week, which is that the bad guyŠ most of the time they get caught and rapped on the knuckles or strung up by the toes or whatever and rarely do they get away and have to just live with their conscience. And that's what that whole trilogy is aboutŠThe person actually gets away, and he's living with his own conscience and his own sadness. And that's his penance."

Keen is often the toughest critic of his own music. It seems that with every album, he can find things that in hindsight, he would like to change.

But he's satisfied with this album, largely because of its development of a unified theme of characters who are traveling, whether between physical locations or emotional phases of their lives.

"I love this record," Keen says. "I have been long in wanting to have something that had a certain consistency musically and lyrically where it really flowed from the first song all the way to the end, where it feels like one piece as opposed to a collection of 10 or 12 songs. That's what I did with this recordŠWhen I listen back to it, I'm very satisfied with how it translates and it speaks back to me."

So for Keen and his music, the road does go on forever. And although may turn out that the party does end, he seems to be finding that what comes next can be even sweeter.