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Robert Earl Keen

Walking Distance – 1998 (Arista Austin)

Reviewed by Brian Wahlert

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CDs by Robert Earl Keen

On his second Arista album, Robert Earl Keen continues the transformation that began with last year's "Picnic." Best known for party songs like "The Road Goes On Forever" and "Merry Christmas to the Family," Keen has shown his serious side of late, and this time around, his songwriting is outstanding.

Keen has always paid careful attention to detail in his story songs, but seldom has he achieved such perfection of character and setting as he does in this album's "Road to No Return" trilogy. The three songs follow a fugitive through his loss of love, escape to Mexico and eventual return, only to live with his regret. "Feelin' Good Again," another very evocative song, superbly captures the narrator's warm contentment of having everything in his world go right for a day. It's easy to criticize Keen's voice, thin and rough, and his penchant for slightly off-color songs ("That Buckin' Song" and "Happy Holidays Y'all" on this album), but the other six originals and two covers here are pure genius.

Keen is the rare artist to reinvent himself and find the result even better than the original.