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Robert Earl Keen's show of force

By Brian Baker, September 2001

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Although the quality of his songs remains impossibly high, Keen's songwriting process has undergone a lot of change over the years. Where he once had an abundance of songs to choose from ' when the time came to record an album, he now tends to focus more directly on the songs that will make up his new work, crafting an album's worth of songs rather than selecting them from a portfolio.

"I pretty much write for the album now," he says. "I used to have a ton of songs, and I'd pick and choose and dump the ones that didn't work. The past five years I've been touring so heavy, and I don't write well on the road. I need a tremendous amount of solitude...I need a couple of days away from everything, from phones and people, where you face some of your own demons and deal with them."

For "Gravitational Forces," Keen chose to co-produce once again with Gurf Morlix, his producer on "Walking Distance" and an old Texas pal from his early career. Morlix's appearance on "Forces" continues a tradition that stretches back across most of Keen's recording career.

"It was the second record that I've produced with Gurf, and you can look back at my catalog, and I tend to do two records with somebody," says Keen. "It feels like you just get going, really rolling, by the time you end the first record. So, if you really get along with the person, and you like what's going on, it's good to try another one. By that time, you know the limitations and the strengths and you know what you can do."

A case could certainly be made that "Gravitational Forces" is an important album for Keen on multiple levels. This is the ninth release of his career, and his first since the unfortunate curtailing of the momentum of "Walking Distance."

An artist often exerts a great deal of internal pressure upon the release of a new album, but there are a great many external issues to be dwelt upon with "Forces."

It's not only an album that will be scrutinized because it's a new Keen record, which comes with its own set of standards, but it is also one of the first releases from Lost Highway, a relatively untested industry entity at this point.

The label has to prove that the success of Lucinda Williams' "Essence" is not just a matter of successfully selling any Williams' album that would have followed "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

Whether the subject is internal or external pressure based on Keen's or the label's, or radio's satisfaction, he is quite certain that he doesn't particularly feel it.

"As far as radio, I know nothing about radio," says Keen. "I used to be a country radio listener, and I gave up on country radio when 'Streets of Bakersfield' dropped off the charts. After that, I couldn't hardly listen to it anymore. Radio is today is so controlled by a handful of people, so I have no expectations for radio. As far as sales figures, I would like to sell more records. I've worked very hard, I would like to have a little recognition in the industry. I would love people to be aware of it."

Although Keen often wears dual hats of performer and songwriter, he has no problem reconciling his two creative sides. "I'm very happy," he says without hesitation. "I'm surprised that I've gotten here. I always hoped that I'd make some kind of impact, but I never imagined that I'd have fans all over the country. I feel confident about what I've got going and what's in front of me. As far as personal achievement, I've kicked some ass."

It's taken the music business nearly 20 years to come up with a convenient tag to hang on the sound and style that Keen has had the conviction to stick with from the beginning of his career. He's not so much playing alternative country as he is playing country as an alternative to country itself. A lot of artists might have thrown in the guitar case a long time ago, given the lack of recognition by the industry and public.

In his modest and unassuming manner, Keen has found the things that are important to him both personally and professionally and pursues them equally.

"From the beginning I wanted to do this," says Keen humbly. "Even in the lean days, when it was just me doing a solo act or opening for a lot of people, I was always just looking for the next gig so I could keep doing this. I'm terrible at other jobs, and I've never found another job that interested me at all. I love performing, I love writing songs, and I like going out on the road. I don't like it as much as I used to because I have a real tight family, and I guess I'm getting more sentimental. I like to spend time with my family, and I have a really great place where I live, and that's what's taken some of the wind out of my sails about going out. But I've always wanted to do this, and the vehicle to do this is to have a few more people know who you are and come to the shows. If records make people come to the shows, make records."

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