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Robert Earl Keen's show of force

By Brian Baker, September 2001

By Texas standards, Robert Earl Keen is a minor legend. Friends like Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Joe Ely have turned Keen's songs into modern country classics, and his own performing career has been hallmarked by some of his own magnificent country albums, although most of them flew under the radar of most music listeners.

Keen, 45, thinks of it this way: "I make country music for people who hate country music."

Keen was a Texas A&M journalism student and budding songwriter in the early '80's when he struck up a friendship with fellow Aggie Lyle Lovett. Keen and Lovett often serenaded neighbors from their front porch, an act which led Keen to write the song "This Old Porch," which wound up on Lovett's eponymous debut.

Keen knew that he had found his calling and seized the opportunity. In 1984, Keen recorded his first album, "No Kinda Dancer," by borrowing money for studio time. The album was a Texas hit, and Keen was nominated as Austin Chronicle Songwriter of the Year.

He released several albums on Sugar Hill, including 1989's brilliant "West Textures," before signing with Arista for his major label bow, "Picnic." His last album, "Walking Distance" in 1998, was to have been Keen's breakthrough, spotlighting him to a world that should have known about him all along. The album attracted a great deal of attention, but Arista Nashville was dissolved in the wake of the rash of corporate mergers two years ago, and Keen lost his label before any more could come of his anticipated rise.

When he finally began work on "Gravitational Forces," his ninth album, Keen relaxed, giving his sound and his process a little breathing room.

"We took longer than we've ever taken on a record," says Keen from his Nashville office. "That was only because I didn't have a label when I started. The end result was that I was going to have a label, or I was going to put it out on my own, so I might as well start. So I would just tour, and then go in the studio for two or three days. It was real relaxed, and nobody was breathing down our necks, and there was no deadline to meet. I think it comes through. It feels comfortable."

Although he considered self-releasing, Keen decided on the safety of major label stability.

"I really just wanted to stay in the industry," says Keen. "When Arista shut down, we were all talking about what we were going to do with the next record, and things were bubbling up and I got excited that maybe the country chart guy would allow this to hit the chart on Billboard - my records never chart, but they sell enough to chart, it's just an arbitrary decision. There were things that I wanted and then Arista shut down. It didn't keep me from wanting those things."

"The climate is different now. I know people that started doing their own thing, and it starts dwindling off because they don't have the machinery to keep it in the stores and to keep the publicists working on it. I felt like I wanted one more shot at this before I threw in the towel and did my own thing. You can make a shitload of money doing your own for a couple of records."

He considered a number of major and indie offers before settling on Lost Highway, Universal Music's new alt.-country imprint. Once Universal established Lost Highway as an entity, the label pursued Lucinda Williams for its initial signing. Keen was next in line. He says that in the end the label won him over with a single thought.

"The sentence that got me the most was, 'We don't want to mess with your art, we just want to sell your record,'" Keen remembers. "That's good enough for me."

By the time Lost Highway entered the picture, Keen was done with "Gravitational Forces." It's a different album for Keen on a number of levels, from the extemporaneous Tom Waits-meets-Terry Allen art/country vibe of the title track to The Wallflowers folk rock of "Goin' Nowhere Blues" to the alt.-country lope of "Wild Wind."

In addition to Keen classics-in-waiting like "Hello, New Orleans" and "Not a Drop of Rain," there are also a good number of covers populating "Gravitational Forces," from Johnny Cash's brilliant "I Still Miss Someone" to Texas godhead Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' on Raton."

Keen has an interesting method for determining the kinds of songs he'll cover in the studio.

"I always pick songs that I'm right on the edge of being able to write, but I can't write it," says Keen. "I just wouldn't be able to pull it off. Like 'I Still Miss Someone.' The reason I love that song is that it's just so achingly raw. I always wrestle with songs that are emotional. I guess I'm a little too uptight or something to really open up, and I lean on very fictional narratives to cover some of those feelings, and then hope that they kind of sneak through. Whereas something like 'I Still Miss Someone,' I feel like I could write that if I could just open up a little bit."

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